The second talking point is to suggest that “back then” these things (which Mitt doesn’t really remember, but does admit may have gone “too far” once or twice) were just boys playing pranks on one another, that sitting on top of a terrified boy and cutting off his hair was just hijinks. I’m not certain where, culturally or historically, you draw the line between hijinks and cruelty, but I’m willing to accept that putting all of your roommate’s underwear in a big pot of water and then sticking them in a freezer overnight is considered hijinks. Filling his underwear drawer with scorpions? That’s probably cruelty. Hijinks are the kind of thing that, if done to you would make you laugh and plot another round of hijinks against your pal. Hijinks presume friendship, camaraderie and a good nature that doesn’t intend to harm. How long do you think John Lauber would have remained a student at Cranbrook had he, in the spirit of hijinks, gathered together an army of his proto-emo friends and shorn the locks of Mitt Romney, the Governor of Michigan’s son, while he was held down in the middle of the night, terrified and screaming?
So, no, whatever your definition and in whatever era, this wasn’t hijinks. It wasn’t okay to brutalize weaker children in the 1960s because “that’s what boys did.” If you’d like verification on that point, ask a victim rather than a perpetrator.
Most people intuitively know this because we all knew the awkward, geeky kid back in school. Some of us were that kid. Most of us likely have some shame about going along silently with something that was done, in our presence and possibly with our involvement, to some kid who was different, poorer, with disabilities or dirtier clothes than everybody else. We all likely carry some shame, as we should, of not putting up some resistance when someone around us was victimized. And we all know it was not hijinks because regardless of the power and the popularity, very few of us ever wanted to be the Romney character in this story, the bully — but almost all of us feared becoming the outcast on some visceral level.
You can bet your bottom dollar that John Lauber — or any kid who ever got stuffed into a locker, called faggot, had his books knocked out of his hands as he walked to class, was made fun of for his hand-me-down clothes or that his parents were on welfare or whatever the hell else might have happened — knew that they were not the victims of friendly, amiable hijinks. They were weak, so the stronger kids terrorized them. Outside of school, in the grown-up world, that’s why we have democracy: so bullies can’t just get their way. Romney was one of the strong kids. He always has been, and given the chance to show remorse for having abused that power once, a long time ago, he denies the memory.
It doesn’t define the entirety of the man, but it is part of his story.
The third cycle of spin is to reframe the debate. During Sean Hannity’s hour of programming dedicated to dispelling the damage done by the Washington Post story, this tactic was on full display. Aside from the graphic reading “Anatomy of a Smear Campaign” and the savory madness of Sean Hannity talking to Karl Rove about the dangers of campaigns colluding with the media, was the accusation that the real bully in the current Presidential race is Barack Obama. The evidence is scandalously out of context, even by Fox News standards. Sadly, they have likely found a receptive audience.
The charge comes from a passage in Dreams of My Father, the memoir written by Barack Obama and first published in 1995. In the book Obama writes of a time when he was ten years old, having just arrived at a new school. In that school there was another student given the name Coretta in the book — though her real name is Joella Edwards. In the passage young Barry and Coretta are running around in the school yard. Here’s the text that Hannity highlighted, with the President’s voice playing as he reads from the audiobook:
There was another child in my class, though, who reminded me of a different sort of pain. Her name was Coretta, and before my arrival she had been the only black person in our grade. She was plump and dark and didn’t seem to have many friends. From the first day we avoided each other but watched from a distance, as if direct contact would only remind us more keenly of our isolation.
Finally, during recess one hot, cloudless day, we found ourselves occupying the same corner of the playground. I don’t remember what we said to each other, but I remember that suddenly she was chasing me around the jungle gym and swings. She was laughing brightly, and I teased her and dodged this way and that, until she finally caught me and we fell to the ground breathless. When I looked up, I saw a group of children, faceless before the glare of the sun, pointing down at us.
“Coretta has a boyfriend! Coretta has a boyfriend!”
The chants grew louder as a few more kids circled us.
“She’s not my g-girlfriend,” I stammered. I looked to Coretta for some assistance, but she just stood there looking down at the ground. “Coretta’s got a boyfriend! Why don’t you kiss her, mister boyfriend?”
“I’m not her boyfriend!” I shouted. I ran up to Coretta and gave her a slight shove; she staggered back and looked up at me, but still said nothing. “Leave me alone!” I shouted again. And suddenly Coretta was running, faster and faster, until she disappeared from sight. Appreciative laughs rose around me. Then the bell ran, and the teachers appeared to round us back into class.
For Hannity and Rove, that was enough to convince them (or to convince their audience of the willing) that even if Mitt Romney were a bully, it was all a wash because President Obama was an even worse one when he was a boy. They pointed out several times in their crosstalk that Obama bullied “black girls” not white boys, as if that spoke of an even lower character. But what was left out (of course) was the context that followed. Had they continued with the next paragraph, this is what they would have revealed, Obama’s understanding of what he had done:
For the rest of the afternoon I was haunted by the look on Coretta’s face just before she had started to run: her disappointment, and the accusation. I wanted to explain to her somehow that it had been nothing personal; I’d just never had a girlfriend before and saw no particular need to have one now. But I didn’t even know if that was true. I knew only that it was too late for explanations, that somehow I’d been tested and found wanting; and whenever I snuck a glance at Coretta’s desk, I would see her with her head bent over her work, appearing as if nothing had happened, pulled into herself and asking no favors.
My act of betrayal bought me some room from the other children, and like Coretta, I was mostly left alone.
If you can square that 10-year-old kid’s immediate shame and contrition with an 18-year-old’s triumph and parading of his shamed victim’s hair, then have at it. You’re on your own. Even more so, if you somehow find writing about that shameful moment in a book years ago to be equivalent to denying a shameful act when it is finally discovered and published years after the fact, then enjoy that lonely, amoral promontory alone. But in your heart, I doubt you can.
I delve into the political spin at such length because it offends the young boy who still lives in me, the one who was victimized by a bigger, stronger classmate decades ago. In repeated attempts to discredit the Washington Post’s story what the Romney campaign and the right-wingers are saying is that Mitt Romney is the real victim here. Their arguments, stripped of any substance, inevitably resolve to a plea that we empathize with poor Mitt who is being bullied by forces beyond his control. We’re supposed to feel sorry for him, not the kid he left crying on his dorm room floor. We’re supposed to feel sorry for the guy who beat up someone because he could, because he felt it was his job to regulate how his classmates looked and behaved in his presence. We’re supposed to feel sorry for a man that never grew stones large enough to say that he was sorry, and now even denies memory of such a traumatic event. That offends me on a cellular level, and as John Lauber can’t say it for himself, I say it in both of our names: Mitt, you’re not allowed to just forget us . . .
If you are still going to pull the lever for Mitt Romney in November, have the decency to do so with the full knowledge that he never cared a jot for John Lauber — not while he held him, screaming in terror, on the floor of his dormitory bedroom and not in any of the days since. He never thought that John Lauber mattered enough to ask his forgiveness. For any man, I find such shallowness to be reprehensible. For a Presidential candidate, I find it to be unconscionable and despicable.
For this alone, Mitt Romney is undeserving of the office he seeks. If you doubt it, think of John Lauber crying alone in the dark as Mitt stalks away with his prize.