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A Portrait Of The Candidate As A Young Jerk

Jason Horowitz's long piece in the Washington Post about Mitt Romney's prep-school years is an absolute must-read, not least because of its revelation, confirmed by several fellow Cranbrook Prep graduates, of the the time that Mitt led a posse of students in pinning down a gay classmate and cutting off his bleached-blonde locks -- an episode the student, who died in 2004, decades later told a fellow classmate had been "horrible" to experience. This was no isolated incident -- Mitt also liked to mock a closeted gay classmate with catcalls of "Attagirl!"

What are we to make of this sort of behavior? Was Mitt some sort of rampaging campus bully, the governor's son throwing his weight around? Actually, no. Horowitz's deeply-reported instead account fits with what I found in my more cursory venture into Mitt's Cranbrook years, for my piece last fall on his oddly sensitive temperament. Namely, that the prep-school Mitt was an insecure figure, even a sort of misfit:

As a student at Cranbrook, the elite boarding school outside Detroit, young Mitt—the governor’s son—was hard to figure out. He was no athlete in a school where jocks held sway, and he was a good but not great student. If he got noticed for anything, it was for his practical jokes: He clowned around with a bunch of fellow jesters that went by “Romney and the gang,” and his yearbook entry features a photo of him grinning maniacally in oversized fake glasses and fake Groucho Marx eyebrows. “Mitt was not particularly outstanding at that time in his life,” says classmate Sidney Barthwell, now a Detroit magistrate. “He wasn’t a great athlete, he wasn’t a leader of the school in terms of elected office. ... Mitt was kind of silly at times in those days.”
And he came in for his share of ridicule—not for being Mormon, though that may have driven some of the ribbing, but for generally being a bit different and hard to categorize. Another classmate, Eric Muirhead, recalls a student government meeting where Romney, who was not an elected officer, piped up with a “rather flip” remark, only to be viciously turned on by two students, one of whom stalked off, ending the meeting. Muirhead, who recently retired as an English instructor at San Jacinto College in Houston, does not recall the exact words of the attack, but he says that it was “ugly,” that it denigrated Romney’s “personal manner,” and that it “seemed to have a lot behind it.” What Muirhead remembers most is Romney’s reaction. “He just sat there and took it,” Muirhead recalls. “The meeting was adjourned and I apologized that he had to go through that, and he just shook his head.” Having watched Romney from afar over the years, Muirhead is pretty sure that his tendency to flare up on occasions like Perry’s interruption of him traces to such moments: “He had to survive some belittling as a schoolboy, and when that happens you become tough or you become passive—and he became tough.”

Toughness, that, apparently, took some less attractive forms. Horowitz's piece ends on an elegiac note, comparing the life paths of the long-locked student and his tormenter:

Forty years on, Mitt Romney accepted the school’s 2005 Distinguished Alumni Award.
A year earlier, John Joseph Lauber died at a Seattle hospital.
The boy few at Cranbrook knew or remember was born in Chicago, grew up in South Bend, Ind., and had a hard time fitting in. He liked to wander and “had a glorious sense of the absurd,” according to his sister Betsy. When the chance to get out of Indiana presented itself, he jumped at it, and enrolled at Cranbrook. He never uttered a word about Mitt Romney or the haircut incident to his sisters. After Cranbrook asked him to leave, he finished high school, attended the University of the Seven Seas for two semesters, then graduated in 1970 from Vanderbilt, where he majored in English.
He came out as gay to his family and close friends and led a vagabond life, taking dressage lessons in England and touring with the Royal Lipizzaner Stallion riders. After an extreme fit of temper in front of his mother and sister at home in South Bend, he checked into the Menninger Clinic psychiatric hospital in Topeka, Kan. Later he received his embalmer’s license, worked as a chef aboard big freighters and fishing trawlers, and cooked for civilian contractors during the war in Bosnia and then, a decade later, in Iraq. His hair thinned as he aged, and in the winter of 2004 he returned to Seattle, the closest thing he had to a base. He died there of liver cancer that December.
He kept his hair blond until he died, said his sister Chris. “He never stopped bleaching it.”

Read the whole piece. Who knows how it's going to play in the campaign -- there is a debate to be had about how much we are to be held to account for things we did at age 17 or 18. But it's hard not to see how this portrait does not add to our understanding of Willard Mitt Romney, Cranbrook Class of 1965.

*Speaking of Romney's temperament, it's worth noting that the allegedly unflappable candidate had another, well, little flap yesterday, flaring up after a Colorado reporter asked him about gay marriage, medical marijuana and immigration: “Aren’t there issues of significance you’d like to talk about?”

** At first, the Romney campaign said he did not recall the hair-cutting incident. But Romney this morning addressed the matter with a distinct non-denial: “Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,” he told Fox News Channel personality Brian Kilmeade. Romney added: “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.”

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis