A presidential candidate’s high-school years have always been packaged as a sepia-toned time of paper routes, patriotism, and premature whiffs of greatness. The classic model is the brief torch-is-passed film clip unveiled at the 1992 Democratic Convention of a 16-year-old Bill Clinton shaking hands with John Kennedy at the White House during a Boys State trip to Washington.
The sometimes-brutal realities of high school have always been far from these gauzy small-town clichés. In truth, you have to be made out of hardier stuff to be a winner in high school rather than a victim.
Mitt Romney, the son of the governor of Michigan, was that kind of winner in the mid-1960s as a boarding student at the elite Cranbrook School outside of Detroit. But as the Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz makes clear in a recent well-reported portrait of Romney at Cranbrook, this high-school popularity was partly earned through pranks — like the forcible cutting of a closeted gay student’s hair — that had a cruel and sometimes homophobic tinge.
Romney, while insisting that he did not recall the hair-cutting incident, offered a blanket apology for his Cranbrook conduct during a Fox News radio interview. “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school,” Romney admitted, “and some might have gone too far.”
Romney’s prep-school years will be rich fodder for future biographers trying to decipher whether he felt like an outsider as a Mormon or as the ultimate insider because of his father’s political success and wealth. But is it possible in the heat of a presidential campaign to draw the right lessons from a candidate’s teen-age years? The temptation to practice psychiatry without a license can be irresistible when the goal is to score political points rather than reveal larger truths.
So as tempting as it may be to find cosmic meaning in Romney’s prep-school years, I prefer to employ the evidence from his adult career at Bain Capital, as Massachusetts’s governor and during his six-year quest for the presidency.
I have long believed that there should be a statute of limitations to protect presidential candidates from ancient controversies. For nearly two decades, baby-boomer politicians faced what-did-you-do-in-the-war dustups over Vietnam--from Dan Quayle wangling his way into the Indiana National Guard to George W. Bush’s spotty attendance record as a National Guard pilot. War records are off the table this cycle: 2012 will be the first presidential race since 1944 in which neither major-party candidate served in uniform.
So in its place, we have what? High school and college memories.
David Maraniss’ forthcoming biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” may well become the most influential book of this campaign year. But the excerpt published in this month’s Vanity Fair, revealing the identities of two college-era girlfriends, merely confirms common pre-existing interpretations of Obama. Young Obama comes across as an earnest, emotionally detached searcher eager to find his place in the world despite his lack of a stable family, financial security and--most important--a clearly identified racial and cultural tradition. With eerie prescience, Genevieve Cook wrote in her journal in early 1984 about Obama, “How is he so old already, at age 22 ... Distance, distance, distance, and wariness.”
Of course, the Romney incidents have an ugly under-current certainly lacking in this portion of the Obama saga. But maybe because I am exactly Romney’s age, I also realize that high school is not necessarily a valid predictor of adulthood. Nothing is pre-ordained in life. Think of Franklin Roosevelt transformed by the ordeal of polio. Think of how the lightweight playboy senator changed into President Kennedy, especially after the wrenching ordeal of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Or, consider the difference in George W. Bush after he stopped drinking.
Romney of Cranbrook undeniably lacked empathy for some of his classmates. But, in a political context, that same point can be made without having to drudge up dusty yearbooks. To understand Romney’s worldview all you need to do is to listen to his vigorous defense of the job losses that stemmed from his decisions at Bain Capital and to chart his frequent flippant references to firing people. It is no secret that Romney believes that unfettered capitalism creates losers as well as winners--and that some of the losers deserve their fate. This is the adult Romney, not the teen-ager at Cranbrook who looked down on day students without a pedigreed background or prominent father.
Journalists Joe Klein and Jim Fallows, both friends of mine, make the case that the most troubling aspect of the hair-cut hazing is Romney’s claim of amnesia. As Klein writes for Time, “This transparent fudge once again raises questions about his character ... I’m still waiting for the moment when Romney tells the truth about something difficult.”
I remain skeptical of these variants on the familiar "it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up" formulation. Without getting too deep into forever-Jung psychoanalysis, I do think that it is conceivable that Romney may have repressed (deliberately or unconsciously) memories of these disturbing moments at Cranbrook. If we want to tote up the moments when Romney told a whopper as an adult, I personally rather would start with his dubious claim that he abandoned his public support of abortion rights because of a revelation that came over him while reading stem-cell memos as Massachusetts governor. Obama’s evolutionary development on gay marriage (akin to Darwin waiting for the latest polling results) also stretched credulity until his dramatic conversion last week.
As Robert Caro so powerfully demonstrates with his latest Lyndon Johnson volume, part of the biographer’s art lies in digging deeply and patiently looking for clues that link events across decades. That kind of panoramic depth cannot be achieved by a single profile or a single incident (no matter how thoroughly reported) dredged up like a time capsule.
Maybe Paul Simon got it right when they sang a few years after Mitt Romney graduated from Cranbrook: “When I think back on all the crap I’ve learned in high school/It’s a wonder I can think at all.”
Correction, May 15, 5:00 p.m. ET: This article has been updated to indicate that Paul Simon, and not Simon and Garfunkel, sang the lyric above.