Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Romney Report

I grew up admiring the work of the Washington Post.

The Post's investigation of the Watergate break–in and coverup inspired me to study journalism in college, work for newspapers and, ultimately, teach and advise journalism students.

But I find little to admire in Jason Horowitz's lengthy article about Mitt Romney's alleged misbehavior in high school.

To be sure, there is nothing to admire about the incident that is described in detail in Horowitz's piece. A young man was horribly — inexcusably — mistreated by a group of high school tormentors, a group of which Romney apparently was the leader.

And I feel qualified to make that assessment because I was a victim of a similar act when I was in junior high. In my case, insult was added to injury by the fact that the leader of the group had been one of my closest, most trusted friends. I don't know if Romney and the victim in 1965 were ever friends.

But what most of these cases seem to have in common is that the victim is usually perceived to be different from the attackers in some way. The only real difference, I suppose, between my attackers and the group Romney allegedly led in 1965 is Romney's group was a few years older.

But, in both cases, the acts were, as one of the participants told Horowitz, "senseless, stupid, idiotic thing[s]."

They were also the behavior of the immature — and that is something of which we all have been guilty at some time.

That isn't meant to excuse these acts. It is only meant to explain them.

Some, if not most, immature actions don't cause lasting damage. Regrettably, some do. And it is impossible to know if the victim in 1965 suffered a permanent scar. He died in 2004.

Thus, it is impossible for Romney to make amends to him.

Which brings me to my primary question: What is the point in publishing this story?

Is it to irrefutably expose the fact that what is now considered hazing and bullying went on 50 years ago as well? I thought we established that in TV shows like Happy Days and movies like "National Lampoon's Animal House."

Is it to establish that a presumptive nominee for the presidency was guilty of immature behavior in his youth? I don't really think it is a good idea to start judging presidential candidates by what they did in their teen years, do you?

Besides, Americans have been pretty lenient about that kind of stuff in the last 20 years. After all, Bill Clinton (gasp!) smoked marijuana and Barack Obama acknowledged using cocaine in their teen years. And George W. Bush struggled with alcohol (and, reportedly, other things) well beyond his teen years.

As someone who worked on the copy desk for many years, I can only conclude that the Post's editors must have figured there was some value in running this report.

But what was it?

If it could be shown that this was some kind of indicator of what turned out to be a lifelong pattern of indifference to others, that would be one thing. But evidence of such a pattern is conspicuously absent.

In fact, Horowitz's article quotes classmates of Romney's who spoke of how he matured when he met his future wife. That is not an uncommon influence. And Romney's behavior as an adult stands in stark contrast to his behavior in prep school.

This is not, after all, like 2006, when a video camera caught Virginia Sen. George Allen using an ethnic slur at a re–election campaign event, and it was established that it was representative of things he had been saying and doing for years.

Patrick Pexton, the Post's ombudsman, insists that the story "holds up to scrutiny."

I guess it did — if the objective was to blow the lid off high school hijinks.

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