Part 3—Dr. Noah knows all: Candidate Romney sometimes engaged in bad conduct during his high school career.
It wasn’t just the bullying attack on fellow student John Lauber, in which Romney and a group of friends held Lauber down and cut his hair.
(This attack was described by the Washington Post in the world’s longest front-page report—a lengthy report which seemed to involve a bit of a journalistic scam. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/16/12.)
It wasn’t just the attack on Lauber. At Salon, Joan Walsh described more of Romney’s misconduct, then engaged in some of her own:
WALSH (5/10/12): Lauber wasn’t the only gay student bullied by Romney. Gary Hummel, who was closeted, recalled that Romney mocked his efforts to speak out in class by shouting, “Atta girl!” He pulled several pranks on a teacher with seriously compromised eyesight, once “escorting” him into a closed set of doors and “giggling hysterically” when he ran into them. Another time he propped up the back axle of the teacher’s VW bug and laughed as the man hit the gas pedal “with his wheels spinning in the air.” Hilarious!In fact, Horowitz doesn’t link Romney to the VW incident, whether as a participant or as an observer. After Walsh’s piece appeared, an early commenter quickly noted this error in her report. Twenty-three minutes later, Walsh commented on another point from the early comments, but her mistaken claim about the VW bug remains uncorrected.
You're right! This VW mistake doesn’t hugely matter—except for what it suggests about the way our modern “journalists” enjoy playing school-boy games. And by the way, Walsh was playing the shrink this day, as so many “journalists” do. Her headline said this: “Mitt, the prep school sadist.”
Romney’s behavior was sometimes bad—but then again, he was in high school. (With regard to the “Atta girl” comment, Horowitz reports that teachers at Romney’s school sometimes said similar things.) Many people might tend to discount the conduct of people at such an age—but increasingly, America’s pseudo-journalists enjoy frisking the early deeds of pols whom they disfavor. In 1999, this tendency reached a comical peak in a profile of Candidate Gore penned by the Post’s David Maraniss, one of the corps’ brightest members.
Alas! The doctor was IN as the scribe played shrink, reviewing the candidate’s troubling conduct—troubling conduct in which he’d engaged at the age of maybe 6:
MARANISS (10/10/99): For the most part, his water balloon caprice aside, Al adapted to this staid environment by behaving as a perfect little gentleman. He was invariably courteous to his elders and seemed uncommonly earnest, sometimes overly so and prone to tattling. His only sibling, Nancy, was a decade older and in some ways his opposite, radiant, easygoing and full of mischief. Nancy attended Holton Arms, a private girls school then located on S Street near Dupont Circle. On weekends, she often stayed home to look after her little brother while their parents were on the political circuit. Barbara Howar, a friend from school, sometimes joined her and they had the run of [the Gore family’s apartment].At or about the age of 6, Candidate Gore was “sometimes prone to tattling,” Maraniss disclosed, at the top of a lengthy profile. And as he continued, the doctor extended his psychological analysis. Gore’s “compulsion to adhere to the expected order extended beyond the common practice of snitching on an older sibling,” the good doctor wrote, typing in a thick German accent. Helping the public grasp the essentials, the analyst gave another example of young Gore’s alleged “compulsion:”
Although Nancy by all accounts adored her brother, at times like this she wanted nothing to do with him. He was the sort of pest who would seek attention by popping out of nowhere, reciting in singsong voice the latest television commercial he had memorized ("Got a little ant . . . Got a little fly . . . Real-Kill! Real-Kill! . . . Watch them die!") Their efforts to evade the watchful eye of Little Al met with no apparent success. "Every time we tried to do something, Al would catch us and say, 'I'm telling! I'm telling! I'm telling Dad!' " Howar recalled recently. "He was an egregious little tattletale."
MARANISS (continuing directly): His compulsion to adhere to the expected order extended beyond the common practice of snitching on an older sibling. One day in May 1958, Al's lower-school class at St. Albans went on a field trip to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Their bus broke down outside the base entrance, and the boys and teachers walked the rest of the way in. When the tour was over, they waited in the sweltering afternoon heat for the arrival of a replacement bus, and many of the boys took advantage of this idle time by scampering around an open field. A young science teacher named Alexander Haslam was surveying his boisterous brood when young Al approached and politely inquired: "Sir, is this the time to be rowdy?”“Perhaps no human beings, not even candidates for the American presidency, should be judged decades later by the way they were before they reached adulthood,” the good doctor thoughtfully wrote, “but it is true nonetheless that in seeking to understand why people think and act as they do, the early days often provide the richest veins in the biographical mine.” Speaking directly of Gore once again, the doctor continued to limn his great theory:
“In many ways the child remains the father of the man,” he wrote. “Many of the behavioral patterns of the figure running for president today are best explained by the boy he once was.”
Good God! Maraniss was one of the brightest members of the Washington “press corps.” But by 1999, even someone as bright as he was willing to say that a candidate’s “early days” may help us “understand why [candidates] think and act as they do”—indeed, that these early days may provide the best way to understand a major pol. By the way: Given the 31-year lapse in time, was Maraniss sure that the “rowdy-time” incident actually happened the way he described? What except the love of novels could have made him so sure?
Given the various types of mischief which can be churned from this type of “reporting,” only a fool would endorse such work. But this thinking is now deeply lodged in the DNA of the national “press corps.” In her piece about Romney’s high school career, Walsh started with this assessment:
WALSH: Last week we learned about President Obama’s first post-college romantic relationships. This week, we’re discovering details of Mitt Romney’s prep-school sadism. While I think we should tread carefully when examining the youthful experiences and mistakes of both presidential candidates, I thought Obama’s romantic past was fair game in Vanity Fair. I think the Washington Post’s well-reported feature on Young Mr. Romney’s entitled cruelty to gay classmates and a disabled teacher is even more revealing and important.By inference, Walsh has said that Vanity Fair’s report about Obama’s “romantic past” was “revealing and important.” Who could really believe such a thing? In his own post, Kevin Drum did a much better job of noting the problems involved in this sort of review. Though we would say that even Drum is much too squishy here:
DRUM (5/10/12): I think mining the past for clues to people's character is basically okay as long as you don't engage in endless pretzel bending to draw absurd conclusions. Barack Obama's youthful drug use and his community activism say something about him, so they're fair game. Pretending he's a whitey-hating anti-colonialist because of imagined influences from his Kenyan father isn't. In Romney's case, describing how he treated both friends and non-friends while he was growing up is fair game. It's partly a window into Romney, and partly a window into the era and culture that he grew up in. But pretending that this makes him an anti-gay bully today isn't. He's got decades of adult experiences that tell us what kind of man he's become. That should be enough.Given the invitations to mischief which lurk in this practice, we strongly agree with Drum’s highlighted judgment: politicians should be judged on their decades of conduct as adults. That said, is the earlier conduct “fair game?” We think Drum is much too squishy when he frames the matter that way. Letting journalists muck around in such conduct is an open invitation to clowning, deception and error. The term “more prejudicial than probative” was invented for matters like this.
We’re traipsing off into la-la land when we probe the adolescent conduct of major pols. And yet, our modern “journalists” simply love this practice. Just consider Timothy Noah’s reaction to the Horowitz story—especially to the suggestion that Romney was a homophobe during his high school career.
Drum warned readers away from such judgments; Noah jumped in feet first. Like Maraniss, Noah is one of the brighter modern journalists; in our view, we all owe him a debt of thanks for his recent work on income inequality. But good God! Noah was quick to react to the Horowitz tale—and as he did, the doctor was IN, although he was now an anthropologist. For the record, the good doctor completely failed to notice the obvious problem involved in Horowitz’s pseudo-reporting:
NOAH (5/11/12): The homophobia inherent in the incident is, sad to say, the least extraordinary thing about this story. Scapegoating young males perceived to be gay was, for heterosexual young males of that era, not the exception but the rule. What was unusual was that the scapegoating would take such active form that one passive observer would recall, even at the time, experiencing shame that he’d done nothing to stop it. Romney didn’t merely mock Lauber for the way he looked. He imposed his will on Lauber and changed the way he looked through physical force. That’s the weird (and, even in the context of 1965, exceptionally cruel) part.Noah was 7 years old in 1965—but he writes with the assurance of Margaret Mead about the folkways of the era. He can’t really know what he’s talking about—yet talk about it he does. As he continued, he was soon discussing this incident in a psychiatric way which sounded a great deal like parody:
NOAH: One thing we know from Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s biography, The Real Romney (and from a 2007 Boston Globe profile that preceded it) is that Romney is a guy who gives more thought to hair than most other people. In November the New York Times ran a Page One story about Romney’s hair, which brought the paper some grief. But as I argued at the time, Romney’s hair merits attention, because (apart from his Mormon faith) it’s Romney’s North Star, a rare instance of consistency over many decades…“I’m not sure what larger meaning Romney’s hair thing...would have for a Romney presidency,” Noah actually writes. “But these tics are weird, and, in the case of Romney’s control-freakiness, annoying and occasionally disruptive.”
To Romney, it would seem, hair had a lot to do with manhood, and with discipline, and with identity. And no doubt it also had a lot to do, consciously or not, with sexuality (see Pope, Alexander, “The Rape Of The Lock”). It wasn’t just this stuff that you cut and it grows back. It projected who you were. And apparently seeing Lauber project, with his peek-a-boo haircut, who he was really freaked Romney out.
It’s hard to believe that anyone would write something that foolish—but Noah is one of our brightest journalists! By the way: Did you hear that Candidate Gore was “sometimes prone to tattling” when he was six years old?
Readers, do you have eyes to see? If so, you can learn a great deal about The Way We Are from the press corps’ reactions to the bullying story. One thing that was revealed is this: The truth is, we just aren’t very bright. Beyond that, we love to play the shrink. And we love to pen novelized stories.
We’re too dumb to notice the kind of scam which Horowitz seemed to play in his report. And one more thing about The Way We Are:
We don’t seem to give a flying fig about people who get their pensions looted by adult figures like Romney. How weird! At times, we don’t seem to care about the conduct in which pols engage as adults!
Tomorrow: The Way We Are in comments