A recent news story brought up some dark memories for me. As most of you will already know, the Washington Post reported in May that as a senior at The Cranbrook School, an exclusive private institution for the children of the Detroit-area elite, an 18-year-old Mitt Romney had a violent confrontation with a classmate, one John Lauber, an underclassman. Lauber, who had long been ridiculed for his non-conformity and presumed homosexuality was one day walking through campus with his hair dyed blond and hanging down over one of his eyes. According to Matthew Friedemann, a close friend of Mitt Romney, the future presidential candidate was incensed, saying “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” A few days later, Romney led a platoon of angry teenage boys into Lauber’s room where they held him down as he cried and struggled. Then Mitt Romney roughly cut off his hair, leaving Lauber frightened and humiliated. Romney then paraded the locks through the halls of the dormitory, and back to his own room. Triumphant.
Though the story has been confirmed by five separate eyewitnesses to the events, some of whom remain scarred and shamed at having participated in the attack that occurred in 1965, Mitt Romney claims to have no recollection of “that fellow” beyond being sure that he certainly didn’t think he was gay. As to the events themselves, Romney claims no memory at all.
That beggars belief.
And it sticks in my craw because thirty years ago I was John Lauber, and I remember it with profound clarity. As does my attacker. Many of my high school friends will recall the party at Figgie’s place on Main Street in 1982. One of the bigger kids at Binghamton High School who taunted me and the other non-conformist “radicals” relentlessly for years came at me that night with a machete in his hand. At the time I wore my hair long, and my attacker was incensed by my hairstyle, my nonconformity. He felt that I just “shouldn’t look like that,” so he grabbed my hair in a bunch over my head and threatened to cut it off while calling me a faggot and pussy and such. He was drunk, which made it an even more unpredictable moment in our lives. I still remember that big knife being held at times to my hair, at times close to my throat. When I close my eyes, I can still see his eyes. I can still see the hate and the rage and the thrill he got from having power over a weaker, smaller boy.
My story resolved differently than Lauber’s and in the end, my hair remained on my head. My attacker never got a chance to parade it through school the following Monday. As it happened, a number of the girls at the party shamed him out of it, telling him to leave me alone. The girls undermined his strength and helped to prevent him from mustering a posse of toadies to goad him on, but for five minutes or so — it seems much longer in my memory — I was his victim. I tried to pry his fingers from around my hair with both of my hands, and I couldn’t budge them. I remember being shaken with fear and shame at my own weakness, but also completely defiant. Fuck him, I remember thinking. If he cuts my hair, it will grow back, but he’ll never, ever forget doing this horrible thing. The moments were tense and terrifying until it all ended with a shove that knocked me backwards and into a wall and the sound of a large blade clattering onto the driveway.
But here’s the rub. A few years later, at The Pine Lounge, the same guy came up to me and made a heartfelt apology. He apologized for being an idiot. He said he was young. He said he was stupid. He said he was being a bully. He, in fact, had grown his hair into something of a mullet: still short up front, but long in the back (it was, by then, the late 1980s). He asked for my hand and said that he wasn’t that way anymore. He asked for my forgiveness. He bought me a beer and I accepted. I bought him one, too, and we buried whatever hatchet there was to bury between us. I do forgive him. And while I’ve not seen him in 25 years, I consider him a friend. Young kids do stupid things. Men, even young men, own up to them and say they are sorry.
John Lauber died in 2004, and as Mitt Romney claims to not remember the event or much about “that fellow,” we must conclude that he never apologized. We do, however, know something of Lauber’s recollections. According to the Washington Post story, one of the witnesses to the attack, a friend of Romney’s named David Seed, ran into Lauber at the end of a bar at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport in the mid 1990s. The report reads:
“Hey, you’re John Lauber,” Seed recalled saying at the start of a brief conversation. Seed, also among those who witnessed the Romney-led incident, had gone on to a career as a teacher and principal. Now he had to get something off his chest.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t do more to help in that situation,” he said.
Lauber paused, then responded, “It was horrible.” He went on to explain how frightened he was during the incident, and acknowledged to Seed, “It’s something I have thought about a lot since then.”
I empathize with John Lauber, though I think my memories of the event have haunted me less because my attacker came to me humbled and contrite. What sinks like a stone in my stomach about the Mitt Romney incident is that in all the years that followed, he never felt it was worth his time to apologize for a cruel, dehumanizing, violent and malevolent act. John Lauber never merited that in his world. Rather, now that he finds himself on the cusp of great fame and power, he denies any memory of the event, at all.
John Lauber deserves better.
This story has faded from the news quickly. In a world of distractions (be they Corey Booker moments, Congressional investigations, Supreme Court decisions, quarterly economic numbers, Russian attack helicopters in Syria, Egyptian elections, or a pregnant Snookie) the Cranbrook bullying story will probably not see much more light before November, if ever again. The President’s campaign team can’t say much about it without seeming like bullies themselves. Journalists, such as they are, live in a world proscribed by rules against calling a politician a liar, even when it is clear that he is lying. And the right-wing hack media has proven once again its facility at its own form of bullying. I don’t much expect any of that to change, but as a point of personal prerogative, I will open it up to a bit more analysis here. Maybe someone will read this and think twice about their small but personal impact on world events when they enter a political conversation with a friend or the voting booth this fall.
The immediate assertion from Fox News and the right-wing echo chamber was that this story was “a hit job” and that it “didn’t hold water.” Wanting to be thorough, I read all that I could find and watched as much of the Fox News reporting on the subject as my constitution could handle. I even tracked down a far-end-of-the-blogosphere citation of a story in an automobile industry magazine from several years ago that purported to debunk the claims made by the Washington Post. All of it was spin, but since for many folks that spin has become a reality, it should (and can) be exposed rather quickly.
The Washington Post’s ombudsman’s response is a good place to start.
The ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, noted that much of the outrage about the original story by Post reporter Jason Horowitz centered on a paragraph that originally quoted Stu White, one of Romney’s high school friends, as having been “long bothered by the Lauber incident.” Further reporting in the hours that followed the publishing of the story (and likely a call from Mr. White) led to an editorial change in the online version to more properly reflect that Mr. White “had been disturbed by the Lauber incident since hearing about it several weeks ago, before being contacted by the Washington Post.”
The change has been noted in the online version. Mr. Pexton concludes, “This part of Horowitz’s story is tangential at best.”
This was the one error found in the reporting of the story, but it became, on the right, a rallying cry about how the Washington Post can’t be trusted as it is a part of a vast, left-wing conspiracy to destroy conservative, Christian America. If only they held such standards for Rupert Murdock-owned outlets.
What was left out of the right’s critiques was that the story quoted five eye-witnesses to the attack on Lauber. Four of whom went on the record. All were interviewed independently. Each independently retold the story of Mitt Romney as the leader of a group of boys holding Lauber down and cutting off his hair as he screamed in terror. From my perspective, it strains any sense of credibility to expect that we are to discount five independent witnesses who tell the same story in favor of believing Mitt Romney’s claim that he has no memory of the event beyond being sure that it had nothing to do with “that fellow” being gay.
Five independent witnesses remember one thing clearly and with traumatizing detail. They feel shame for it. But the man running for president who organized the attack can’t quite call it to mind. Come on . . . really?
Even if Romney is “your guy” in this election cycle, you’d have to admit that this is a hard sell. Even if you can’t say it out loud, I just can’t believe that anyone really trusts Romney on this point if they have read the piece, understand how it was reported and can see the forest for the trees. The attack on John Lauber did happen. Many decided Romney voters will need to believe that it didn’t. They will push it aside; tuck it back down into a corner in the basement. But other voters will not be so easily misled. Thus the need for further talking points and spin, the first cycle of which has been to speculate whether a story from 50 years ago is at all relevant today.
Yes, it is. Not because any of us can imagine Mitt Romney trying to cut off some kid’s hair today, but because when faced with a choice to come clean and be contrite, he looked in the camera and just flat out lied. To not see this you must fully embrace that five independently interviewed witnesses are lying in exactly the same way by random chance. That or you can choose to believe that your candidate is either experiencing profound memory loss or is a sociopath. In any scenario, this still matters. Enjoy the cognitive dissonance.