Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was a queer-basher in high school.
According to the Washington Post, five witnesses have independently confirmed that in 1965, Romney led a “posse” of prep-school peers to physically assault a fellow student, “…like a pack of dogs.” The target: “John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, (who) was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality.” Romney was reportedly incensed at Lauber’s long, bleached haircut, saying, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” a classmate recalled. As the Post puts it:
A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.
This all occurred at the Hogwarts-esque Cranbrook Schools, a private boarding school in Michigan. Romney was sent there by his automotive-mogul-turned-governor father, George W. Romney.
Another former Cranbrook student, Gary Hummel, who was gay and closeted at the time, recalled that Romney would call “Atta girl!” when Hummel attempted to speak in class. (The Post notes that similar homophobic bullying was common among Cranbrook’s students and staff at the time.) Former students say Romney also enjoyed screwing with a near-blind teacher nicknamed “The Bat,” e.g. walking him into closed doors.
How did Romney respond to these allegations, which surfaced early this morning?
Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul:
…anyone who knows Mitt Romney knows that he doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone in his body. The stories of fifty years ago seem exaggerated and off base and Governor Romney has no memory of participating in these incidents.
And Romney himself:
Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that…I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.
And Romney responding specifically to the Lauber accusation:
I don’t remember that incident. I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.
So, to summarize Romney’s response:
1-The allegations exaggerate what happened.
2-Romney has no memory of what happened.
3-Romney apologizes for whatever might have happened, if it happened. “Obviously.”
And the fourth part of this response comes from Romney supporters, who keep saying, “But he’s such a nice guy!” The NYT reports
Some friends and associates of Mr. Romney, including several who are gay, said they had a hard time reconciling the seemingly insensitive younger man with the tolerant, considerate one they have known as an adult.
This is one of the best non-apologies I’ve heard in a long time. (Way slipperier than shooter George Zimmerman’s non-apology to Travon Martin’s parents for killing their son, which Shakesville takes apart here
.) Romney manages to not only simultaneously deny-and-not-deny the allegations, but also simultaneously apologize-and-not-apologize for non-specific events which may or may not have occurred. Take another look (with my emphasis added):
Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that.
In this first section of his non-apology, Romney lumps every “dumb” thing he ever did during high school, and then issues an all-sweeping apology to anyone who was ever “hurt or offended” by such dumb things. It’s a rhetorically brilliant sentence: in addition to lumping queer-bashing and prank phone calls together into the same “hijinks”-type category, this statement has the same content as, “I apologize for anything that merits apology.”
..I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.
Notice that it’s unclear whether “I apologize” refers to “a lot of hijinks and pranks,” or only the ones that went “too far,” or the fact that there were some which went “too far.” Again, the rhetorical effect of this is to make it entirely unclear just what Romney’s “apology” applies to. Which, of course, is precisely the point of a non-apology: to make a lot of noise which looks and sounds like an apology, without ever acknowledging or taking responsibility for any wrongdoing. The effect, as Orwell wrote, is to mask one’s silence with the sound of one’s voice, “like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
I can’t make up my mind about which part of Romney’s response has the most dark humour: his tortuous non-apology, or the bit where he laughs and says,
“I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.” (My emphasis.)
Note, first, the weirdness of Romney taking a forceful position (“I certainly”) on his own beliefs about his own thoughts. Then, notice how he casts the “1960s” as a golden age which pre-dated homophobia. There’s an awful lot packed into the clause “furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s”:
1-Homosexuality was unknown in the 60s.
2-Thus, homophobia was unknown in the 60s.
3-Thus, Romney could not have been homophobic in the 60s.
4-Therefore, logically, Romney could not have queer-bashed Lauber.
So, since homophobia didn’t exist yet, Romney couldn’t have been a homophobic bully, in this lost Eden of our forefathers.
I’m queer, and so are the people I love. Two weeks ago one of my friends got queer-bashed
. This kind of violence is not unusual
in my country. Before I read this story, I figured Romney was an inept, socially conservative version of Obama: reasonable, thoughtful, competent, unspectacular. Since reading it, though, I’ve come to fear a Romney presidency with all the vigour I had formerly reserved for the likes of Sarah Palin and George Bush.
It’s not the bashing itself which changed my mind. I mean, it’s fair to point out that good people sometimes do bad things, and something “stupid ” Romney did half a century ago doesn’t necessarily define him today. It’s also fair to point out that the cultural context was deeply homophobic and sympathetic to the sort of “pranks” Romney pulled: it’s not like his bashing was an aberration.
No, what’s wrong–deeply wrong–is Romney’s response. He unflinchingly fails to acknowledge or apologize or take responsibility for his assault. I don’t particularly doubt his failure of memory: it seems plausible that he’s conveniently forgetting the assault so that he doesn’t have to concretely speak about it, but it also seems plausible that he genuinely forgot. I know that I tend to forget (read: repress) things that I’m ashamed of. But regardless of the legitimacy of his forgetfulness, Romney uses his foggy recollection to dodge discussion of the bashing. He does not say, “I don’t remember this, but if five witnesses say it happened, then it must have, and I’m deeply sorry.” Instead, he acts as though no one really knows what happened, and it doesn’t matter anyhow.
So not only did the Republican presidential nominee gang-bash a closeted queer student during his senior year of high school, without any repercussions. Now, a half century later, he continues to dissemble about it (while scrupulously avoiding anything that’s technically a lie). Not just a basher, but an unrepentant and brazenly dishonest one.
This incident needs to be an election issue not because of some abstract question of “character,” but because Romney hurt my people and got away with it.
…But hey. He’s such a nice guy.