Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article exploring Mitt Romney’s tenure at Cranbrook, a prestigious boarding school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The article’s focal point was an incident in which Romney reportedly led a group of peers as they tackled, restrained, and cut the unconventionally long and dyed hair of a student, John Lauber, who was rumored to be gay.
The article, riding on the coattails of President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage, has quickly gained publicity. While his aides claimed that Romney had no recollection of the event involving Lauber, the candidate quickly put together a vague apology for his pranks.
Should we pay attention to this story? On the face of it, it would seem to be a sad state of affairs when one’s high school behavior becomes fair game in presidential politics. Yet there a number of themes here that are drawing America’s attention. Undoubtedly, one of these is the idea of the elite prep school. With all their descriptions of leaded-glass windows and cloth napkins, it’s clear that the Post meant to draw our focus to this rarefied high school environment. What is it about prep school that changes the thrust of this story?
A prep school is a place that derives a good chunk of its meaning from the past. All schools thrive by getting individual students to invest themselves in a collective identity; by turning Cranbrook students into “Crannies.” The collective identity at a prep school, however, is peculiar in its unique reverence of tradition. It is participation in rituals that first forges students into the collective spirit at a prep school, and it’s the imperative to preserve these rituals for the next generation that keeps them there. Tradition is a central aspect of the experience, as well as the glue that holds it all together. Unfortunately for students like John Lauber, the tradition stems from a decidedly conservative past.
How can we understand Romney’s response to Lauber in this context? By his senior year, Romney had become the perfect prep school student. Managing the hockey team, cheering for the football team, and loaded to the hilt with extracurriculars, he was the emblem of Cranbrook school spirit. Having attended since the 7th grade, his sense of self was intimately bound with the institution and its traditions. With the counterculturalism of the late ‘60s beginning to germinate, perhaps Cranbrook and its devotees were already primed to feel that their way of life was under siege. In such a case, a threat to the prep school tradition becomes a threat to Romney. Thus, we can begin to imagine how one head of long blond hair held so much significance for a young Mitt Romney.
So, should voters pay any attention to this incident? Some may dismiss this as a non-story of the media cycle’s creation. We are also not getting the whole picture: from a 50 year vantage point, we lack the full depth of historical context. Perhaps the adolescent behavior of a politician is not relevant to the conversation; surely Romney is not alone in having some cringe-worthy moments on his high school record. People also change enormously as they move from adolescence into adulthood.
If these accounts are trustworthy, however, the image of a young Mitt Romney brandishing scissors over the head of tearful young man is too disturbing to escape our attention entirely. What does it say about a man’s character that he was once willing to cause another human being this much distress in the name of safeguarding tradition? If institutional loyalty could trump Romney’s basic empathic instincts, does that suggest that these instincts were pretty thinly formed to begin with? Can this be chalked up to youthful bad judgment, or does it suggest a cold intolerance lying beneath? Tell us what you think.