The dumbness of The New Yorker!

TUESDAY, MAY 15, 2012

Letting the swells tell their tales: Was Mitt Romney a homophobe during his high school years—during his tenure at Cranbrook, a Detroit-area prep school?

It’s certainly possible! Tomorrow, we’ll look at the way the Washington Post reported this story last week—and we’ll look at the way some people reacted. For today, let’s look in on our smartest magazine.

Let’s visit the hapless New Yorker.

Good lord! As it turns out, the well-known writer Edmund White attended Cranbrook too! (He graduated in 1958, before Romney appeared on the scene.) The New Yorker gave him 1400 words to recall his years as a gay adolescent at Cranbrook, and to speculate about what Romney may or must have been like.

How addled are modern intellectual elites? Before he started making shit up, White shared this puddle of piddle:
WHITE (5/11/12): I was friends with two writers while at Cranbrook, both of them resolutely straight though strangely tolerant of my “tendencies.” One was Thomas McGuane, who turned out to be a talented novelist and a real Montana rancher and cowboy, a man who’s had movie-star lovers (Margot Kidder and Elizabeth Ashley) and who’s now married to Jimmy Buffett’s sister; he’s said in print that he knew I was gay in school and thought it was “funny.” The other one was Raymond Sokolov, who became a preëminent film and later food critic, who’s lived in Paris and worked for Newsweek, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and whose wife is on the curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum.
Do you have any idea why the highlighted material appeared? We don’t either! But in fairness, it did serve as a warning for what lay ahead.

Soon, White began to muse. More accurately, he started making shit up. This is deeply addled work. Just ponder those highlighted chunks:
WHITE: From what I can gather from the few details that have come out about Romney and his bullying of a student who was perceived as gay (forcefully cutting off his long, bleached-blond hair), a familiar picture emerges. Romney was not a good student nor was he athletic; he was the manager of one of the school teams, a sort of default position for boys who wanted to be athletic and cool and popular—a water boy, in essence. He was considered a class clown, always up to rather cruel pranks. I can picture his situation, though it’s only speculation on my part (I’ve never known any of his friends, though one of his older brothers was a classmate). On the one hand he had an embarrassingly famous father, the governor of Michigan, whom he idolized as the youngest child. On the other he was the sole Mormon, a member of what was definitely seen as a creepy, stigmatized cult in that world of bland Episcopalian Wasps (we had Episcopalian services at chapel three mornings a week). When his father was president of American Motors, he lived at home and was a day student, an envied status. When his father was elected governor and moved to the state capital of Lansing, he became a boarder. Suddenly he was surrounded by other Cranbrook students and the strict “masters,” 24/7. He no longer had the constant support of his tight-knit family. Now he had to win approval from the other boys.

No wonder he became a daring and even violent prankster. He who worried about his own marginal status couldn’t bear the presence of an unapologetic sissy like Lauber, with his long bleached hair (the Mormons, then as now, have insisted on a neat, traditional, conservative appearance, especially in their young missionary men whom they send out all over the world). In scorning and shearing a sissy student and leading a gang of five other boys in this “prank,” Romney may have felt popular and in the right for the first time. According to one of Romney’s repentant accomplices, Lauber was terrified, weeping and begging for help.
In truth, almost everything there has been made up. White doesn’t have the first fragging idea what he’s talking about.

At our smartest magazine, such niceties don’t seem to matter. White is allowed to imagine that Romney was embarrassed by his father’s fame. He is allowed to imagine the way Romney’s Mormonism affected him at the school. (In fact, the Washington Post reported Romney having a spirited exchange with a Cranbrook friend about his religion. The paper reported no stigmatization.) According to White’s speculation, Romney “wasn’t a good student,” although there’s no evidence supporting that claim in the Post’s report.

And of course, White paints a vivid picture of Romney’s feelings toward John Lauber, the student whose hair was cut off.

White is inventing the bulk of this story. What is White’s intellectual method? He says he can picture this situation, although “it’s only speculation.” And needless to say:

When White engages in speculation, “a familiar picture emerges!”

Romney’s conduct was quite bad that day—but he was a high school student. By contrast, White is old as the hills, and his conduct is very bad too! That said, this type of novelization is the way a great deal of pseudo-journalism has worked in the past several decades:

Piffle-pushers begin to imagine. And as they engage in this tiring work, “familiar pictures” emerge.

How odd! We ourselves can "picture" White’s situation, though it’s only speculation! And as we picture that situation, another familiar picture emerges:

In our familiar picture, White is perhaps a bit engaged with Buffett’s oldest sister, Margarita. Swept away by Margarita’s charms, he typed this foolish report.

Question: Will the New Yorker give us space to publish our speculation? Obviously, no—they will not. But then, they shouldn’t have let this silly old man publish his puddle of piddle.

Read that piece! (Don’t miss the part about McGuane’s lovers!) As you do, you are staring into the heart of (High Manhattan) dumbness. Progressive interests have suffered beneath this weight for a very long time.

Tomorrow: What Romney did


  1. Whoever said The New Yorker was a progressive magazine, or that White was a liberal? People can criticize Romney without being either.

    1. Edmund White's ideological orientations are quite liberal, as any perusal of his work in general or specific suggests. If you saw only a "trace of liberalism" in White's work, read his book States of Desire, which is about as socially liberal (progressive) in terms of sexuality as you'll get. Or read his biographies of Genet or Proust. Or read his brief, delightful memoir about being young, gay, and working through the emotional aftermath of a repressive, upper-middle-class Midwestern upbringing. Really, is there a question, which is not to say that he doesn't hold reactionary attitudes in some areas, but the one need not cancel out the other.

      As for Romney, have people forgotten his statements and actions of the early 1990s, when he was running for the US Senate seat against Teddy Kennedy? People may attribute his unarguably progressive comments about gay people and equality to the context of running in Massachusetts, but let's not forget that that state has had Republicans, like Ray Shamie, who were not at all liberal or moderate or anything of the sort. I cannot speak to Romney's beliefs in the 1960s, but he is on record as having been pro-gay in the early 1990s, before he turned, like a weathervane, during his tenure as governor, to becoming relatively anti-gay, to his current position, which is extremely anti-gay. Ultimately who can say what he believes on this or any issue; his actions should be the guide, and they offer little confidence or reassurance that there's any internal compass inside him beyond one seeking success and power.

  2. If school grades are important, Romney should be lauded. Romney graduated first (I think) in his class at Harvard Business School while simultaneously attending Harvard Law School.

    1. Thank you for the non sequitur.

  3. Maybe he can picture the situation better than most people could because he has an actual mental picture of the place himself, and was familiar with the atmosphere and the kinds of kids who went there. Is it illegitimate exercise to try to draw on that inside information and place the Romney situation in perspective?

    1. Yes, actually. It is an illegitimate exercise to draw on his "inside information" about Cranbrook to speculate about what Romney "may" have felt:

      "In scorning and shearing a sissy student and leading a gang of five other boys in this “prank,” Romney may have felt popular and in the right for the first time."

      Mr White is a novelist.

    2. Except that he has made it perfectly clear that he is only extrapolating. You can find it insightful for how to interpret the Romney information or not. I have generally agreed with the Howler's attacks on Gail Collins for her relentless references to the dog story with manufactured facts, but this story, especially when combined with the atrocious apology that only made it worse and the Bain Capital business model that seems to have had at its core screwing the employees, is a bit more serious. Collins made up facts. This writer is positing an interpretation of apparently undisputed facts based on familiarity with the setting. Very different.

    3. "Extrapolating" sounds so much better than "making shit up"!

    4. "Making shit up" is the essence of fiction. Extrapolation is inferring a reasonable narrative from factual information. If the extrapolation expands to far from the fact it blows apart like a hyper-inflated balloon. At least White states up front that he is extrapolating from his personal knowledge of the school and its atmosphere and attitudes regarding gay students. I don't remember any such caveat when Dinesh D'Souza and Newt Gingrich postulated the influence of Obama's radical, anti-imperialist father (whom he had met once). That ballooning of extrapolation blew up like the Hindenburg!

  4. Nice. Thanks Bob.

  5. I guess the best way to view posts like this is to reflect on how much better things are than in the bad old days. White's work is a far cry from sleazbos like Graydon Carter and Christopher Hitchens trying to figure out a way to get racist rumors about Bill Clinton into print without legal ramifications. What this comes down to is Somerby believing Mitt Romeny's (or anyones) High School years should not be held against them. There is much to be said for that point of view, though everyone who disagrees is not a liar or an idiot, as The Daily Howler would pretty much have it.

    White's is no impressive bit of writing, but it's not equitable or WORSE than the viciousness of a violent, creepy, spoiled prep school brat. White name drops, irreverently, though people do tend to gab about the famous folks they went to High School with, and the tone here is chatty. He does not extend to Mitt the wildly generous appraisal of The Daily Howler: that Mitt had a bad "day"(!).
    It's never hard to tell when we are dealing with facts or White's opinions and embellishments. Indeed, it's Somerby who is slippery here: "there is no evidence supporting that in the Post's Report." Well, how were his grades? If they were good, by all means, let's join David In Cal and praise the scissors wielding bully boy.
    The very notion that the young Romney (and White does say "may") was behaving this way for approval seems to offend The Howler and others here. But again, White is saying something "might" be true, rather than tall tales of say, the young Al Gore living in a luxury hotel. It's an important distinction. The New Yorker Piece is filler, but it draws the same from "The Daily Howler."

    1. Greg, while your analysis is chock-full of contortion and double standard, I did enjoy "scissors wielding bully boy."

    2. Greg, you dismiss the every bit as credible allegations against Clinton and Gore as "rumor" and "tall-tales." You even refer to the period as "the bad old days." However, you are more than willing to believe Romney is a "violent, creepy, spoiled prep school brat" and a "scissors wielding bully boy" on the thinnest of evidence.

      You obviously weren't applying the same standard to both situations.

  6. Buffett's oldest sister, Margarita....ha! Good one.

  7. Say what you will about the New Yorker, but to be fair, Edmund White is an acclaimed novelist, as well as a biographer and critic and, even less frequently, a journalist (of a sort), so I am willing to cut him some slack when it comes to "novelization."

    As many readers here might be aware, as a fiction writer White usually musters more vivid language than this passage offers, but who knows how much time he had to write it. (If you are unfamiliar with his work, I would recommend A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room Is Empty among his novels, and among his other works, his biography of Jean Genet is superb, and his short biography of Marcel Proust is a model of witty concision. He is not a full-time journalist, but a fiction writer and professor of writing and literature.

    Also, White focus on McGuane's relationships seems quite fitting for a work of fiction, or even creative nonfiction. It might strike Somerby as irrelevant, and for basic, straightforward reportage, it is, but in a work of fiction, such information contributes to the creation of character, and also the specific details may come into play later in the work.

    All of what I've written does not excuse the constant novelization of journalists, who should be reporting facts, but it does explain White's approach.

    Ultimately, Romney's behavior in high school is but one aspect of his person, and it might offer clues to who he is and how he'd behave as president, but there are many, many more ones, from throughout his adulthood, that it behooves the press to focus on. They cannot manage to do so.

    That is not Edmund White's fault, and he should not be held to that same standard.

  8. Good grief Bob, the guy said he was speculating and imagining and you squander time smearing his "speculations".

    Don't you read the damnable lies and deceits that are offered up as "truths" in the media every day?

    Why not spend your time usefully instead of your usual nitpicking little points where liberals go a bit too far?

    Who do you actually think gains from that anyway?

  9. "Do you have any idea why the highlighted material appeared? We don’t either!" I do. Citing both McGuane's AND Sokolov's wives, White is asserting their heterosexual credentials, thus suggesting that there WERE students at Cranbrook who were sensitive and 'gay friendly', even in the fifties. McGuane is something of a cowboy, a literary macho man with sexy movie star wives. White is suggesting that even such 'macho' types don't require homophobia as an element supporting their heterosexual identity. Get it now?