Why Stories Like Romney's Bullying Matter

Why Stories Like Romney's Bullying Matter

Five years ago, Jason Horowitz, author of the fascinating history of Mitt Romney's teenage bullying in The Washington Post, wrote another story that seemed to offer unsettling insight into the character of a presidential candidate: Joe Biden. It was to Horowitz, then a reporter for The New York Observer, whom Biden made his infamous remark that Barack Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man." The widespread reaction was that Biden was a little racist, invoking an old stereotype that black people aren't usually "articulate" and "clean." The usual suspects weighed in and Biden's political looked damaged. And yet here he is, the vice president of the United States, serving under that very same articulate guy. 

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While it didn't derail his political career, Horowitz's story on Biden did reveal something important about the future vice president: He has a big mouth that gets him into trouble. Obama's team might have disregarded the idea that Biden was a little racist, but they should have noted his tendency to say things that get him in trouble. It was Biden's big mouth that caused Obama to endorse gay marriage this week, after all. So yes, this election is all about the economy -- and we hope that at the very least, our 10-year-old war in Afghanistan sneaks in as a side issue -- but silly stories still matter.

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Horowitz's story about Romney's bullying is, obviously, a totally different type: instead of a contemporary gaffe, it offers an insight into the candidate's character back when no one was paying attention to him and he had no responsibilities. NBC News' First Read writes that the story is a problem for him politically, because even though Romney has been running for president for six years, most people don't have a good sense of who is he is:

The BEST case for Romney on this Washington Post story is that it establishes him as someone who went to prep school – not a regular high school – not only is he a man of privilege but he was a boy of privilege, too. We know the worst case. The middle case is it can make people think back to high school, and say, oh, he was THAT kid?

But Forbes' Josh Barro -- who interned for Romney when he ran for governor in 2002 -- sees the story fitting with a couple more modern data points about Romney. In 2006, Romney threatened to dissolve a commission on gay kids -- which had been established by a Republican predecessor, by the way. His administration delayed an anti-bullying handbook, reportedly because it contained stuff about gay kids, until Romney was out of office. And as liberal blogger John Aravosis points out, Romney's top staffer, Eric Fehrnstrom, outed a local activist as transgender when he was a reporter for The Boston Herald. "I can remember his glee when he found the birth certificate," ex-Herald reporter Robert Connolly told GQ's Jason Zengerle. Another coworker, Howie Carr, proudly described his paper as "the schoolyard bully" whose job was "finding people and kicking them when they were down." 

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In Barro's experience with Romney, the candidate had clearly matured from his teen self in that he respected people. But the answer to the question, "does Romney have empathy for people who are different from him?" seems less clear, based on his record and his description of his bullying as mere "hijinks." Barro writes:

I’m sure Romney is reluctant to drag out the news cycle on this story by another day. But a little public reflection on having bullied John Lauber—did he have a tendency to pick on outsiders as a teenager? Have experiences in his adult life led him to be more empathetic?—could humanize him and show that he has grown to understand the concerns of people who differ from him. That is, if he has in fact grown in such a way.

Many conservatives (and commenters!) are complaining that the press didn't look into Obama's background with the same detail. But we do know details that now seem illuminating more than three years into the Obama administration. Maybe Obama's teenage experimentation with weed and coke -- in addition to how he describes himself in his memoir -- show he was a guy who felt like an outsider and didn't really connect with those around him. Today part of his trouble with Congress is that reportedly doesn't enjoy small talk and stroking the egos of lawmakers and donors who he needs to pass his legislation and finance his campaigns. It's not a disqualifying trait, but it's not trivial either.