Why Romney’s “bully” story matters

I’m not going to go too in depth into the recent revelations that Mitt Romney’s high school “hijinx” consisted, in part, of leading mobs on torture-raids of less popular students at his high school. The Washington Post article that broke the story speaks for itself, and there isn’t really a whole lot to say about it.  Romney has responded to the story, denied any recollection of it, and issued a generic non-apology if anyone was offended.

I’ll just point out that a lot of the commentary and opinion around the story seems to ask the same question, and it’s a valid one:  Which is worse, that he committed these acts, or that he doesn’t remember?  I would re-frame that question:  which do you think is more plausible, that Romney actually doesn’t remember assaulting a kid and forcibly cutting his hair, or that he’s lying about it?

It’s possible that the incident, long in his past, is not one he dwells on much, but once he was reminded of it, he should have remembered it.  Otherwise, that suggests he may be a sociopath.  It’s by no means definitive, but when you couple it with a lot of other Romney behavior (see my inaugural post for two examples), and his predatory business practices, you have to wonder if this is a person truly capable of the empathy necessary to be a good president.  I’d say it’s still early to call it, but I’m not the only one with character doubts about him;  John Dean makes a compelling case that Romney would be an Active/Negative leader, in the style of George W. Bush and Nixon.

If in fact Romney does remember this and is simply lying, that would also reflect poorly, not because it would mean he was dishonest, but because it would make him a coward.  I would hate to be judged against acts I committed during my youth and childhood at this stage in my life, but would like to think that, if confronted with them, I could at least face them and own up to my actions (no, I’m not going into any details, don’t even ask).  This country has a fairly consistent and lengthy history of forgiving leaders who, when faced with past transgressions, acknowledge mistakes, apologize sincerely, and pledge to do better.  As the cliché goes, “it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover up.”  While this principle is often seen as stemming from the Watergate scandal, I would argue that it strikes much deeper, and represents an essential human truth.  The notion is deeply embedded in our stories–it was a fundamental theme in MacBeth–and was even explicitly described in the movie Clear and Present Danger, when Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan advises the president to acknowledge, not deny his friendship to the murdered money launderer, specifically to “give [the press] nowhere to go with the story.”

Romney’s shills and apologists, most recently Tim Carney, are wrong to argue that it’s the media keeping the story alive.  It’s them, and it’s their candidate who have the matter on indefinite life support.  Had Romney issued a sincere, heartfelt apology (or even an insincere one that sounded sincere) and chalked it up to youthful transgressions, the story would be over.  By telling what appears to be an obvious lie, he is encouraging the press to nail the story down with further evidence, to keep digging.  This is a stupid strategy, and has the potential to seriously harm him in the long run.  This isn’t even graduate level media management, this is basic politics 101–and by this point in his political career he should know better.

So maybe Carney was right, this is a “meta story”, seeing as it’s not about his actions as a youth but about how he has responded to the story, but even if that’s true, it’s also irrelevant.  Because Mitt Romney is dealing with an issue that is, essentially, a tempest in a teapot, and he’s mismanaging it badly, and he’s doing so while he’s running to become President of the United States during extremely challenging, troubling times, and if he can’t make the management decisions to guide his own campaign through something as relatively trivial as this, how are we to believe he’s capable of managing the much more significant crises he’d be walking into?

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