We’ll get to Mitt Romney the Privileged Bully in a second, but first let’s talk about Butt Club. As part of the Washington Post ’s recent exposé on the awfulness of young Romney, the paper ran online his 1965 yearbook photo from elite Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Underneath Mitt’s slick, smirky photo are the future candidate’s school activities, from Church Cabinet to Glee Club. But the Post ’s scan of his yearbook picture also cropped in the activities of another, nameless student, probably whoever preceded “Romney” alphabetically. And that student, it appears, was a member of the Butt Club. I have no idea what prep school Butt Clubs are like—and Google is not exactly helpful in situations like these—but just the mere possibility of Mitt accidentally walking into one of their meetings is delightful enough for me. (What do you think Butt Club did? Do you think they had formal agendas? I have so many questions.)
In any case, if you’ve been following the political news cycles over the last few weeks, you’re familiar with the real Cranbrook story. (And if you haven’t been following the political news cycles, congratulations, you win.) The story, reported and written by Jason Horowitz, leads with a vivid recounting of Romney cutting the hair of a fellow student while other classmates pinned him to the ground. Horowitz writes: “As [the student], his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.” What’s more, Romney’s cohorts told Horowitz that Romney targeted the soft-spoken, shaggy-haired kid because he was different: “presumed” gay, as Horowitz puts it. In response to the article, Romney told Fox News Radio he didn’t recall the incident but read the reporting and is “not going to argue” with it. “High school days,” Romney added, “if I did stupid things I’m afraid I gotta say sorry for it.”
The campaign is telling anyone who will listen that it’s silly to talk about the candidate as a teenager, but the first problem for Romney is that voters are subjective and irrational. We may know in our hearts that young people make awful decisions, but Americans have long yearned for stories of presidents’ youth that seem to predict leadership. These accounts can be straight-up apocrypha—think George Washington and his cherry tree—but voters crave a story arc that justifies a place in history. George W. Bush found Jesus, Bill Clinton once shook JFK’s hand, and so on. This portrait painted of Romney as a young man describes a special breed of bully, the kind of villainous and dramatic rich kid later personified in John Hughes movies. Romney didn’t just beat up someone weaker—he organized a mob of classmates to do it. It’s one of several examples Horowitz discovered that portray Romney as lacking basic empathy for those different from him, vulnerable people like the gay classmate or the nearly blind teacher. As is true for most political stories that stick, this tale neatly fits a narrative, in this case one of a man who grew up taking for granted his immense advantages. Mitt’s countless dickish moments throughout this lousy campaign—joking to people looking for work how he is also “unemployed” after leaving the governorship, say—add up to shellac the picture of a callous one-percenter into permanence. An adolescent absence of perspective—that critical appreciation for the difficulties that most people face—can be seen today in many of the social policies advocated by the adult Romney. But now the risk isn’t merely to one member of a minority or one person of limited health—it’s all of them.
Back in the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton’s mouth-breathing strategist Mark Penn wrote that President Obama’s youth in Indonesia and Hawaii exposed “a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values.” In other words, Obama’s personal history was a disqualification, not just from higher office but from membership in his home country. Later, Obama would face his more recent past life as a congregant of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church, which—speaking of returns to the past—deep-pocketed Romney supporters appear now to be gaming to bring back into the fold. In 2008, the chatter pushed Obama to give what this columnist believes to be his greatest speech ever. On a March morning in Philadelphia, Obama said, “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now,” adding that “understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.‘” Obama actually reworded Faulkner’s line, from Requiem for a Nun—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”—which years earlier had been repurposed as an echoing anthem in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia, which puts the idea another way: “We may be through with the past,” characters note, “but the past ain’t through with us.”
Because, the thing is, stories about Romney being an entitled jerk matter for reasons beyond the fact that voters like story-arc narratives. When you run for president—or even for re-election as president; just search “Genevieve Cook” and “sexual warmth”—decades-old stories materialize unexpectedly. But tales of the past remind us of what truly matters: our lives today. Obama’s use of the Faulkner in 2008 was meant to suggest that America’s disturbing racial history continues to hang in our national atmosphere like so much smog, and thus cannot possibly be described as just “the past.” People in this country can understand struggles like these, or they can subscribe to the ur-Republican theory of “America: love it or leave it.” Anderson has it right: Romney may be done with his prep-school bully past, but the fear is that his past isn’t through with him. Memory can be a dangerous wasteland of missed lessons and half-apologized-for failings, but the power of our histories is that they offer up uneasy recognition of who we are now. The levees that hold back our past are often shoddily built and hurriedly raised. By embracing the full power of where we’ve been, we can realize where it is we need to go.