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Commentary: Mitt Romney and prep school bullying

If Mitt Romney had bullied a classmate in South Carolina today, he might be facing a rap for assault and battery by a mob, formerly known as lynching. Jail time might have sharpened his memory of the incident.

By now, most people have read or heard about how Romney, as a senior at the prestigious Cranbrook prep school in 1965, led a group of fellow students in tackling and restraining a student with the audacity to sport bleached blond hair so Romney could take scissors to the blond boy’s bangs.

Some have said the story has been discredited. It hasn’t.

It was painstakingly sourced with accounts from people who were a part of the mob and others who witnessed the incident. The victim, John Lauber, apparently never mentioned the attack to his siblings, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Others say dredging up the story now, nearly 50 years after it happened, is unfair. They say people shouldn’t be held accountable for mischief they perpetrated when they were 17.

These critics have a better argument. Certainly, this incident, which Romney has called a prank, doesn’t come close to disqualifying him for the presidency.

As former President George W. Bush famously noted, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”

Some also have labeled the abuse of Lauber as homophobic because he allegedly was regarded at the time as a closeted homosexual. But that stretches credulity.

In 1965, long before the gay rights movement gained momentum, few people thought in terms of who might be a closeted homosexual, especially people of high school age. Most gays weren’t open about it at the time, and admitting you were gay could end a career.

What seemed to spur Romney’s ire was not Lauber’s suspected sexual orientation but rather his nonconformity, the fact that he had the gall to bleach his hair and let it hang over one eye.

Actually, in 1965, that wasn’t so far out. The surfing craze was just getting geared up, and surfers had hairstyles similar to Lauber’s. Remember the Beach Boys singing about “bushy, bushy blond hairdos”?

So, it’s odd that the young Mitt was so incensed at Lauber’s appearance. Why was Romney was so intent on regulating what was considered normal and punishing the eccentric guy?

Still, it’s not so much what he did then that is significant. His reaction to this month’s Washington Post story about it is a lot more revealing.

Romney claimed to have forgotten the incident. He then offered the classic non-apologetic apology: “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some may have gone too far. And for that I apologize.”

First, no one who tackled a classmate and cut off his hair would forget doing so, no matter how much time had passed. Romney, of course, isn’t the only politician to feign amnesia about embarrassing history. Bill Clinton couldn’t recall having pizza with Monica Lewinsky.

But Romney’s reluctance to offer some insight into his younger self is unsettling. Is indicates a lack of introspection, a fundamental lack of empathy.

It’s also bad politics. It plays into the image of Romney as an insensitive jerk.

Romney could have used the occasion to say, yeah, he remembered picking on Lauber, and he has regretted it all these years, and it was a painful lesson about bullying that he has taken to heart and which has made him more aware of the plight of the downtrodden. Or something along those lines.

He might also have elected not to use the word “hijinks.” In South Carolina, third-degree assault and battery by a mob is a Class-C misdemeanor. It is not as bad as second- or first-degree offenses, which entail serious bodily injury or death, but it does carry a possible sentence of up to a year in jail.

Had Romney been charged with that crime, he probably could have pleaded guilty with a sentence of community service or a fine. He wouldn’t have ended up behind bars, but he probably wouldn’t have forgotten about roughing up John Lauber.

And he might actually have regretted it.