Might Mitt Romney not remember if he bullied someone in high school?

Mitt Romney says he doesn't recollect an incident from the mid-1960s in which, according to a Washington Post report, he led a 'posse' that forcibly cut the long hair of a nonconformist student.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign stop in Omaha, Neb.,Thursday, May 10.

Might Mitt Romney not remember if he bullied someone in high school? That question arises as more reports surface that the former governor of Massachusetts led a “posse” that held down and forcibly cut the long blond hair of a nonconformist student at suburban Detroit’s Cranbrook school in the mid-1960s.

Mr. Romney has said he does not recollect this incident. However, he has not disputed Thursday’s Washington Post story, which broke the news of the alleged attack on then-junior John Lauber.

“I participated in a lot of high jinks and pranks during high school, and some may have gone too far. And for that I apologize,” Romney told Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade in a radio interview.

Romney’s defenders have pushed back against the Post account, saying Romney might not remember it because it’s possible it didn’t occur. They note that one of the main sources for the Post story, a Cranbrook friend of Romney’s named Stu White, did not say he saw the haircut take place. In addition, Christine Lauber, the sister of the alleged victim, has said her brother never mentioned it to his family. (Mr. Lauber died in 2004.)

“It is pretty clear that the Lauber incident did not unfold in the way the Washington Post describes, if, indeed, it happened at all.... [T]his is all part of a process to brand Romney as a vicious, thoughtless, out-of-touch rich guy,” writes streiff on the conservative RedState blog.

But other news organizations have begun to publish reports that confirm key elements of the Post account. ABC News on Thursday reported that a Romney classmate named Phillip Maxwell says he saw Romney wield the scissors as John was held to the ground by other members of a boy “pack.”

“It’s a haunting memory ... because when you see somebody who is simply different taken down that way and is terrified and you see that look in their eye, you never forget it,” said Mr. Maxwell, according to ABC.

Given this confirming evidence, it might be worse if it is true that Romney does not recall what happened, according to the generally liberal Talking Points Memo. TPM editor Josh Marshall on his blog quotes a reader as saying that would mean Romney committed the act without feeling very much about it or reflecting upon it later in life.

Mr. Marshall himself says he has been struck by Romney’s “intense equivocation” about the event. Although the presumptive GOP nominee has said he doesn’t recall it, he apologized to anyone whom he offended and added that he had no idea Lauber was gay.

“None of that really adds up. And I think this is long enough ago that if Romney just came clean and said it was almost 50 years ago and he regrets it that would be sufficient for most people,” Marshall writes.

For our part, having attended a boarding high school a few years after Romney, we find it hard to believe that he's forgotten this hazing – if it in fact happened. Dorms for teenagers are kingdoms run by boys, and the hierarchies, fights, bullies, and victims of that unusual realm remain vivid memories decades later.

That said, some of the worst offenders from our experience are today not just different, but successful and admirable members of society. It’s hard to see their youthful activities reflected in their personalities today.

How will ordinary Americans feel about all this? As the Post’s Chris Cillizza says on his Fix blog, a voter’s choice for president is heavily personality-dependent. It’s about who the candidates are, as much as what policy positions they hold.

We don’t know how voters will weigh Romney’s alleged bullying against other aspects of his personality, or whether they’ll care about something that occurred so long ago. We may never know.

“But the quickness of Romney’s apology is a signal that his campaign recognizes the potential political peril in an extended litigation of what he did or didn’t do in high school,” writes Mr. Cillizza.

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