Our first President was a great man from the beginning. George Washington’s honesty is evident in the famous story of the cherry tree, in which, enamored by his new axe, he chops down his father’s prized plant. When his father asks him what happens, he nobly claims responsibility and admits the truth because he “cannot tell a lie.”
Of course, this story is apocryphal. If such an incident did occur, there is no evidence for it.
It does, however, demonstrate our desire to create narratives around our leaders that exemplify their positive qualities. The greatness that is within them has been in them since the start, or so we would like to believe. Thus, in political campaigns, a sure-fire way to cast aspersions upon an opponent is to disprove this narrative and show that she has not always been what she now claims to be.
Recounts of Mitt Romney’s harassment of a gay student in his high school are the latest in a line of this type of political maneuvers. How should we view the allegations? Is it fair to hold someone to something that he did 50 years ago? Is this just a low blow from the left? In general I am in favor of giving politicians the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their youthful actions; I would like to believe that there is a possibility for individuals to rethink their previous behavior, and to become more moral people. However, several aspects of this incident, especially Romney’s reaction to it, are troubling enough that we should think twice before discounting it as a youthful mistake.
The Washington Post published the original article about the incident, which was detailed to them by some of Romney’s classmates: A young Mitt Romney led a group of others in holding down a student as they cut off his dyed-blond hair, as he cried and yelled for help. The student later came out as gay, and many commentators attribute the incident to homophobia.
Though this is clearly abhorrent behavior, I would not say that it guarantees in itself that the Romney of today is as lacking in empathy as his high school self was. That he was not punished for the incident should indicate an acceptance of his behavior by the school. And though this in no way excuses the act, his social environment was probably one in which this behavior was expected. In the club of privilege, there was little tolerance of those who were different.
When I originally set out to write this column, I had planned to leave it at that: that his behavior was clearly wrong and unacceptable, but that there is certainly the possibility that he has changed.
But then, I actually listened to the recording of his “apology” myself.
It was painfully clear that Mitt Romney didn’t seem to think that the incident was very important, though it was very traumatic for the victim. When the incident is described to him, he chuckles and says that he does not remember it, but that he played some pranks in his high school days and “if I did stupid things I’m afraid I’ve got to say sorry for it.”
That his first reaction is a laugh is difficult to stomach, especially given the many widely publicized cases of bully-driven suicides among teenagers, particularly gay teenagers. Either he is so out of touch that he cannot see how harmful his behavior was, or he doesn’t care. His actions as a youth may not be representative of his character today, but his actions today surely are.
That he says he cannot remember the incident means one of two things: He is either lying to save face, or this form of harassment was so commonplace for him that this case in particular was not memorable enough to stand out. Either one of these has serious ethical implications.
What should we take from all this? From my point of view, Romney failed to do the right thing. In neither owning up to his actions nor taking them seriously, he failed to treat his fellow man with the empathy and compassion that he deserves. He failed to show the empathy and compassion that we should want in a leader. If he had apologized seriously and sincerely, he would be what most of us are: Someone who has made mistakes in the past and learned from them. Instead, he is someone who has propagated his mistakes from the past to the present.
So, by all means, let’s judge presidential candidates by who they are today. But by the look of it, the Romney of today is the spitting, spiteful image of the Romney of yesterday.
Maya Fraser is a second-year in the College majoring in sociology.