That Washington Post Mitt Romney Story? It's Not Mitt Romney's Story

A story about the candidate's high-school bullying antics tells us something about him, but we'll never know enough to make a full judgment.

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Know this, dear reader: when a politician has spent a long time in public life, his past performance in office, campaign rhetoric, and advisers are the best guides to how he'll behave if elected. Trying to divine secrets about his character, positive or negative, from long-ago anecdotes concerning his teen years is a fool's errand. Can you accurately recall events that happened decades ago? How many men in their sixties embody the best or worst of their high-school selves?

But if we must talk about whether Mitt Romney was a bully or a fun-loving prankster or homophobic or all or none of those things in high school -- if you've missed it, The Washington Post reported that he once bullied a gay student in prep school by holding him down with other boys and cutting his hair -- let's at least get a bit more context from that era. I direct you to "Parent Trap," Jonathan Cohn's 2007 New Republic article subtitled, "How Mitt Romney un-became his father."

The passage that's relevant in this news cycle:

Mitt wasn't a standout for most of his years at Cranbrook, which he attended from seventh to twelth grades. Classmates describe him as a B-plus student who was happy to cede academic achievement to others. He was active in the Blue Key Club, a service organization that shepherded visitors around campus, and the Homecoming Committee. But he wasn't the student class president or leader of the prestigious debate society. Nor was he cut out for the football or the hocket teams, which perennially won state championships. He made do as team manager for the hockey squad -- and, since Cranbrook was an all-boys school, as a cheerleader. "He wasn't an athlete, which was tough on him, because other members of his family were," says Philip Maxwell. "He just wasn't coordinated in that way."

Other classmates remember Mitt as young for his age emotionally, at least by Cranbrook standards. They say he was more popular than admired, a "happy-go-lucky guy" known less for his achievements than his pranks -- like the time he and some friends borrowed a state trooper's uniform from his father's security detail and pulled over students from the neighboring girls' school... Some classmates speculate that George's looming presence may have been what made Mitt so quick to retreat to the safety of humor. Eric Muirhead -- a classmate who now teaches writing at San Jacinto College in Texas -- says that, when students wanted to make fun of Mitt, they would say things like, "He's no George Romney." "I had the impression that Mitt was struggling for respect when he was at Cranbrook," Muirhead adds. "Mitt suffered because of his father's importance."

The Washington Post story included some of the same details as Cohn's 2007 piece, but differed in places too:

Some students admired Romney for what they saw as his lack of airs, saying he did not trade on his father's status as an auto executive and governor. Romney even came in for teasing because American Motors, the company his father ran, was considered at the bottom rung of the big-auto hierarchy, below General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. "Boys in a boys' school can tease and make fun of almost anything," said Bailey, a scholarship student and head prefect of the school who described Romney at the time as an awkward adolescent with a penchant for practical jokes. The children of other auto executives would taunt Romney for the Ramblers he and his father drove. "That's not a car, that's a bicycle with a dishwasher for an engine," Bailey recalled them saying.

It's no surprise that one story emphasized Mitt Romney being teased for failing to live up to his father, while the other emphasized that he was taunted due to the company where his father worked. This happened five decades ago. A third careful journalist writing the same story would surely tell the story a third way. But notice that this is just the sort of detail that's relevant if we're trying to figure out where exactly Romney was in the pecking order back then, and whether he had a mean streak or bullied others so he wouldn't be bullied or neither of those things.

We just can't know. And while that's frustrating, the rational thing to do is judge the man based on his years in public life.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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