The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Cranbrook School And The Lord Of The Flies

Today’s Washington Post story on Romney’s school days and his penchant for practical jokes—sometimes of a disquieting nature—underscores a point we made yesterday here at the site: there’s a pressing need for Romney to make a strong personal impression on the American people. Because if he doesn’t, others will fill in the gap.

Now, to anybody who spent time in the Lord of the Flies atmosphere of the elite all-male prep schools of that era, it’s not so remarkable that Romney engaged in bullying. Indeed, giving a compulsory haircut to a campus hippie doesn’t amount to much by the standards the much-dreaded Third Form of Pundit High  employed on unwary Second Formers who fell into their clutches. While my own recollections of Second Form (8th grade) year at are blessedly dim, I do seem to recall a certain amount of marching around chanting “Kill the pig! Drink his blood!” from time to time and none of us have ever wanted to talk about what happened to that fat awkward kid with the glasses.

So if the life of adolescent boarding school boys at Cranbrook was sometimes more Slytherin than Gryffindor, Via Meadia isn’t going to lead the public stoning of Mitt Romney.

It is a little more troubling that Mr. Romney doesn’t seem to remember what happened. It is one thing to commit an act of casual cruelty in early youth; another to have such thick psychic armor that the deed makes no impression. (To his credit, he publicly apologized for the conduct today, though he says he does not recall the specific incident. It is not all that unusual that the victim remembers these incidents more clearly than the perpetrator.)

But the larger point here remains that if the Romney camp can’t communicate a strong sense of who their candidate is, backed by a narrative of his life that resonates with people, his opponents will take up the job—and the Romney camp will likely neither recognize nor  like the image their opponents paint onto the blank canvas of their chief.

Romney’s Cranbrook hijinks are one thing if seen as an unpleasant incident of the kind that, unfortunately, abounds in all human lives. In context,  as a minor and even humanizing blemish on a well known and, basically, well liked face, it may not be George Washington and the cherry tree, but it isn’t the worst flaw a presidential candidate has ever revealed. But when there is no public knowledge of the real man, such incidents have a lot more power and count for more.

Some Americans already think of Mitt Romney (and of most Republicans) as the good looking jocks from the country club set: wrapped up in their own happiness and good luck, casually homophobic, mocking and contemptuous of those who don’t measure up to their rich preppie standards. This story plays into those stereotypes in several ways and makes Mitt and Ann Romney look more like Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan than like anything middle America likes or approves of.

If he wants to succeed in November, Romney needs to take control of his personal narrative and show the people of this country who he is — and why he is more than just another golden, heedless frat boy who really only understands and cares about people like himself.

Published on May 10, 2012 4:27 pm
  • Jeff Medcalf

    It is, of course, entirely possible that Romney doesn’t remember the incident because it didn’t happen. I do not trust what the media writes about political figures when it comes from a single source known to be hostile to or any number of sources known to favor that figure. I’ve seen too much “fake but accurate” reporting to give them a pass.

  • ms

    I can’t say I agree. I feel like I know enough about Romney. I actually don’t like getting too touchy feely about a candidate because it seems undignified. I really know way more about Obama than I want to know, and I haven’t even read Dreams of My Father, (nor do I wish to) just heard other people talk about it. Truthfully, what did we know about Obama in 08? What he wanted us to know, that’s what. I think the complaint here should be directed at the media in part. They don’t want to tell us much about Romney aside from the campaign day to day because–well–he’s lived a very upright life. Romney is obviously a fine man with a fine family who has had a fine a career and is clearly very capable. That is enough for me. And if we are going to start casting stones at people for high school hijinks, well–there are not enough stones in the world for that!

  • Anthony

    WRM, here’s what Romney may be up against: “the common run of voter when it comes to casting his ballot suddenly feels that he has some power. Perhaps intolerant of all differences, he intends to use his power to the hilt; he looks the candidate over and compares him to a mental cartoon of the perfect philistine and asks himself these questions”: Did he go to prep/boarding school? Does he belong to the right Christian sect? Does he show the least sign of being regular? Does he care about and understand people like me? etc., etc., etc.

    Generally in our politics, regular voters are voting punitively – they are voting against (not solely on some disliked policies but usually supplemented by personal characteristic attached to candidate that allows frustrated hostility to be sublimated and worked off via office seeker. So WRM, you’re correct Romney ought not let Lord of the Flies become his nom de plume…

  • thibaud

    The voters are smarter than to pay attention to this noise. People who are facing foreclosure or who’ve been out of work for a year, or whose neighbors are in that spot, do not care about all the ephemera that our press corps and the campaigns throw up.

    As for me, I couldn’t care less about Romney’s adolescence, just as I had no interest in the Most Amazing Lifestory of Barack nee Barry and his absent dads.

    Romney has a record. Obama has a record. We have massive and urgent economic problems that demand intelligent solutions. Those are all that matter now, and talk about dreams of fathers or screams of (frat) brothers or whatever are completely beside the point.

  • Jim Pabarue

    Walter,

    You and I are both well acquainted with prep school students who acted like Governor Romney. Although it is kind of you to dismiss his conduct as “an unpleasant incident of the kind that, unfortunately, abounds in all human lives”, I believe that the characters of the students who conducted themselves in that fashion back then were fully formed at that time. Over the years after school, they may have learned to mask their arrogance, sense of entitlement and disdain for those they believe are somehow lesser and/or flawed, but the basic contemptuous bully is still in there. I am sure that Governor Romney will hire the right consultants to help him mask his true personality (as a trial attorney, I often have trained unrepentant miscreants to appear as angelic as choir boys on the stand), but the basic animal will not change. People do not regard him as “genuine”, and for him to “take control of his personal narrative” means hiding who he really is. This simply will perpetuate this problem.

    While there may be many justified criticisms of the President’s approach and policies on many issues, he is who who he is and the same is true of Governor Romney. The fact that Romney does not remember the specific incident speaks volumes…to him, it was just a typical day in his life – nothing significant. One wonders how he will treat the less fortunate citizens in our country if he is elected President.

  • Paul

    Oh how awful, a fourteen year old boy was behaving like a… fourteen year old boy. I’d be more impressed if the WaPo told us what Obama did from the time he went to Occidental and formed a Revolutionary Marxist Club until he graduated from Harvard Law.

  • Asscheeks of Saturn

    It’s about time to work some drug war angle in here too, ain’t it?

  • DB

    You can dismiss what Romney did as normal 14-year old “hijinks” but it is really nothing except bullying, plain and simple. We were all fourteen once and we understand kids do stupid, mean and obnoxious things, but not many of us ever went so far as to hold down a weaker kid and cut his hair.

    Only a little different kind of guy does that. And not different in any positive way.

  • ms

    Please Jim, get real. An alleged incident from a 14-year-old tells you all you need to know about someone’s character? You need to get out more.

  • So and So

    The event itself is not terribly important, but you can learn a lot from a reaction to the event. Look at Romney’s: “I don’t remember doing that, and I nopologize for ever causing any harm to anyone, and I’m sure it wasn’t because he was gay”. Look at the nopologist homophobes who are lining up to bash a great piece of investigative journalism: “Boys will be boys”. Let me be brutally clear: Mitt Romney is a bad person, and to defend any of his bad behavior makes you even worse.

  • Gary L

    WRM is like: So if the life of adolescent boarding school boys at Cranbrook was sometimes more Slytherin than Gryffindor….

    That consummate magical bureaucrat, Dolores Umbridge, reminds us that the Wizarding World’s most notorious pranksters, the twin brothers Fred and George Weasley were sorted not to the budget-slashing pro-austerity house of Slytherin but to the allegedly egalitarian house of Gryffindor. Fred and George (aka George W.) administered a Ton-Tongue Toffee to Dudley Dursley (swelling the poor Muggles’ tongue to 2000 lbs), and Canary Creams (which turned Neville Longbottom into a giant canary), manipulate younger classmates into serving as guinea pigs for Skiving Snackboxes, and also gave poor caretaker Argus Filch a rather rough time. The twins are definitely prime bully material, unsuitable for presidential consideration.

    Obama seems like a consummate intellectual Ravenclaw to Romney’s supremely dull Hufflepuff. Frankly, a touch of Slytherin makes Romney much more interesting, if he only knew how to properly exploit it.

  • Corlyss

    We have a stonger and more pressing need to figure out how to get media that focuses on important issues, don’t pick sides, and don’t set hundreds of semi-literate grunts to digging up insignificant episodes 40 years gone with which to attempt to discredit politicians.

  • elixelx

    Don’t blame Barry-boy, please, for what Romney did before Barry-boy was born!
    I believe that Frasier and Niles invited two boys who had bullied them at school to fix their toilet.

  • Jim

    I saw Romney up close some years ago. He was phoney as a three-dollar bill. Either he doesn’t know how to present himself to the masses, or he’s hiding something. Maybe this is what he’s hiding. But we can’t survive another four years of Obama, so hopefully he can fis this and God will deal with him.

  • Jbird

    The WaPo is already backtracking on parts of this story and ABC news is calling into question some of the reporting and “witnesses”. This story may go the way of Perry’s painted rock and W.’s National Guard paperwork. . . The WaPo has a history of this sort of thing, trying to beat a Republican into the ground over some silly allegation, true or not. The Perry story was theirs, as was the Allen Macaca story and the McDonnel college thesis story. In the meantime, there seems to be little interest in a similar probing of Obama’s background, btw, he admitted to shoving a girl in middle school in his autobiography, is that better or worse than cutting a hippy’s hair?

  • Jbird

    as an addendum, this also seems similar to the Rand Paul aqua-buddha story. True or not Romney’s “prank” is barely malicious if at all. At my college, various groups like the soccer team would shave the heads of new members whether they wanted it or not. . . this stuff happens, It’s not like they are beeting new pledges to death or causing alcohol poisonings like some places. I’d be more worried about someone who was never involved in hijinks than someone who was.

  • Kent harrington

    Unfortunately for Romney, his primary opponents forced him to publicly redefine himself- an exacting price he was eager to pay in order to win the nomination of a party veering – even careening – too far too the right. (A process as brutal and disfiguring as his high school prank.)
    With so much archived videotape, his primary pandering is already plugged into Dem attack ads, and he’ll probably never recover. His only hope requires an assist from a slowing economy – or Obama missteps.

  • Kris

    I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that Obama supporters are trying to escape the economic reality by focusing on one incident from Mitt Romney’s high school (!) days. After all, isn’t drug use a kind of escape from reality? (Surely you don’t mean to tell me that Obama’s self-confessed usage of cocaine is off the table!)

  • Jim.

    Unbelievable.

    Via Meadia is handed a centrist Presidential candidate — a successful Republican governor of the deep-Blue state of Massachusetts — and all VM can do is dig up “dirt” from how many decades ago?

    Seriously??

    VM should be praising this man to the skies. VM should be thanking God for the miracle of his having made it through the gauntlet of a TEA Party Republican primary. VM should have the courage of its centrist convictions to come out SOLIDLY in support of this centrist candidate.

    Otherwise, VM faces the risk of making it look like there is no actual Center in this country — that the Center is no more a political party than the Equator — that there are so many radically divergent views at the Center that it is a fool’s errand to try to rally around Centrism and “moderacy” as a political strong point.

    If you’re going to single-issue Romney on something he did as a teenager (and has since apologized for!) you might as well pack up your bags, because to condemn him on such grounds would prove that the via media does not exist in American politics.

    By the way — if politicians are to be criticized for forcing anyone to “take a haircut”, that is an unfortunate bit of wordplay. “Taking a haircut” is going to be absolutely essential for righting our banking and international fiscal problems; VM should be conscientiously avoiding any event or article that puts that meme into a negative light.

  • John Richardson

    I think we are seeing the real Romney here, this is simply the kind of guy he is. At least he is not trying to be someone he is not. As for Obama, I still do not feel we know him, even though he has been President for 3 years. The election will turn on the economy, no more, no less.

  • Jack Burden

    It seems overly convenient that this alleged incident occurred to a classmate that is now deceased, and was never known so far to have mentioned it to anyone in his family. It also was not remembered when the same supposed witnesses were previously interviewed about the old prep school days. I believe it will be as unproductive for the opposition as the Aqua Buddha “story” was. As far as painting Romney as extreme in the general, the Tea Party Congress of 2010 puts the lie to that meme. Or have conditions improved that much in the interim?

  • http://facingzionwards.blogspot.com/ Luke Lea

    What do you make of this?

    http://tinyurl.com/c7ejk4q

    Reminds me of the early reporting on the Trayvon/Zimmerman case. Will people be fired at the Post for this? I hope WRM writes about it.

  • James Bryan

    I am rather surprised that Dr. Mead, whom I much admire, would believe a story by the WaPo about a Republican–any Republican. Check the recent revelations about this story: WaPao made a stealth correction to its piece after one of the persons supposedly still appalled by the incident said he wasn’t there at the time. Also, the family of the supposed victim has released a statement saying they are appalled by the article. And, hey, no one back in the 1960′s at a boarding school knew what “gay” meant. The article, in short, was a hit piece. Dr. Mead, please be a bit more skeptical of what you read in WaPo and the NYT!

  • Jack

    I am always impressed by WRM’s logical thinking.

    I am generally less impressed with his naive beleif in the veracity of the Washington Post and the New York Times. Logical thinking is useless when you rely on bad data.

    My view is that Romney doesn’t remember the incident because it didn’t occur. And if it did, so what? Teen agers are [jerks].

    But lets compare that so called incident of bullying with Obama calling out and naming individual American citizens (such as the Koch Brothers and others)as enemies because they don’t support his re-election bid.

  • http://Thepencilofnature.net Lorenz Gude

    I am amazed at how many commenters on this thread seem to swallow the meme whole. Rich preppy behaving badly – it reeks of ‘truthyness’. That doesn’t make if false, it is just that when a story is this perfect and also aligned perfectly with the partisan agenda of the publication in question one sholuld be skeptical. One of the first things they teach you in Library school is to always consider the source. If the WaPo does a hit piece on Obama, i’d be inclined to take it seriously. If the Washington Times does a hit piece on Romeny the same.

  • John Robinson

    I graduated from Cranbrook in 1963, two years ahead of Romney. I don’t recall any interaction with him but I did have occasion to engage in conversation with his father who would have his hair cut at school. Ev, the school barber, was an institutional legend and ran his shop for as long as anyone could remember.
    Hazing of underclassmen by upperclassmen occurred, as it does in all boarding schools, but generally it was of a constructive nature correcting some misbehavior or social faux pas. I don’t recall any truly malicious incidents of bullying. Actually hazing at Cranbrook was quite tame compared to my experience during Officer Candidate School, Marine Corps.