AS A TARGET of bullying in the 1960s, I was disgusted to hear Mitt Romney claim he does not remember being the leader of a group of prep school teens that pinned down an "effeminate" classmate as Romney allegedly cut off his hair. He is either lying or worse. If he truly cannot remember, his response betrays a creepy lack of empathy for someone seeking the highest office in the land.
I suffered nothing like what the classmate, John Lauber, did, let alone Phoebe Prince and Carl Walker-Hoover, the two tormented Massachusetts youths whose bullying-related suicides roiled this state. In first grade, I was beaten up for the chocolate bar I won for winning the class spelling bee. I was a fat kid who was teased for my "breasts." At my job at a variety store, ruffians threatened to beat me if I did not let them shoplift. As manager of my high school's predominantly white junior varsity basketball team, I dreaded games against black schools as shouts of "Boy!" rang down from the rafters when I gave water and towels to my players.
I claim no lasting, debilitating trauma in an otherwise ordinary childhood. But all of those incidents are punched into my memory. You still reel momentarily on the ropes in humiliation. So too, do the bullies themselves.
The Romney story as told is proof. Five sources interviewed separately by the Washington Post, including participants and witnesses, said the incident happened in 1965 during Romney's senior year at the private Cranbrook school in Michigan. Participant Phillip Maxwell, now a Michigan lawyer, told The New York Times, "It started out as a ribbing, sort of a ribbing about his hair, but it very quickly became an assault, and he was taken down to the ground, pinned. It all happened very quickly — it was like a pack of dogs."
The rabidity of the pack, as Lauber cried and screamed for help, made Maxwell say of Romney, "I would think this would be seared in his memory. Certainly for the other people involved, nobody has forgotten." Another participant, retired prosecutor Thomas Buford, told the Post he later apologized to a "terrified" Lauber. "To this day it troubles me." Buford said.
A witness to the incident, retired principal David Seed, told the Post he ran into Lauber three decades later at a bar in Chicago's O'Hare Airport. Seed said he told Lauber, "I'm sorry that I didn't do more to help in the situation." Seed said Lauber responded: "It was horrible . . . It's something I have thought about a lot since then."
All Romney has had to say so far is: "I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, why, obviously I apologize." He also said, "As to the pranks that were played back then, I don't remember them all."
That insults the intelligence, especially when at least two of Romney's buddies apologized personally to Lauber. Romney is hoping this all blows over by hiding behind the word "prank" as if it confers a playful, "Leave It to Beaver" innocence. But just because bullying is taken much more seriously today does not make an assault of yesteryear any less traumatic. Maybe I missed the episode, but I recall no family shows of the 1960s normalizing the cruelty of this alleged assault.
If he were the man of faith and principle he claims to be, Romney should have said, "Yes, it happened. It was mean, wrong and went way beyond 'boys will be boys.' John is dead now, but I apologize to his family and his friends. I know enough now to understand how I may have inflicted a lasting trauma on John."
Something like that would have been reasonable. After all, teenagers do stupid things. Instead, Romney's response now calls into fresh question his long-conflicted commitment to equality, having gay staff members but also abolishing panels on gay and lesbian youth and hate crimes when he was Massachusetts governor. Romney's "I don't remember" is either preposterous or a penetrating window into a void of human feeling. Nearly five decades after allegedly assaulting an "effeminate" boy, Romney cannot summon the courage to "man up."
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.