Even in apologizing for bullying, Romney's entitlement shows

The GOP candidate says that back in prep school, he didn't think of homosexuality. That doesn't even register as plausible to any of us who have attended all-boys prep schools.
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Mitt Romney speaking in Tempe

The GOP candidate says that back in prep school, he didn't think of homosexuality. That doesn't even register as plausible to any of us who have attended all-boys prep schools.

Mitt Romney has apologized for some awful bullying incidents remembered by his classmates, incidents which seemed to focus on gay classmates, or ones suspected of being queer.

At least the stories are consistent with Romney's Darwinian economic philosophy, expressed at Bain Capital and in his campaign, that only the fit should survive. The rich are the fit, and it's good that they prey upon the weak, the effeminate, the nerds, the misfits. You don't have to read many private school novels (Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Dead Poet's Society) to get a sense of prep school cruelty, and how it prepares a certain class for life.

This was true in all decades, certainly the 1960s, Romney's era. In the '60s I rode an Overlake Country Day School school bus that dropped off kids door-to-door in Seattle's Broadmoor, the only neighborhood to get such red-carpet treatment. They were the sons of local business big shots. What a pleasure it was to ride to school with that group of entitled snots. Note to Rick Santorum: Snobs are made long before they have a Harvard degree. For these kids, the civil rights era existed as a threat, not a dream. Broadmoor was gated, its walls topped with barbed wire. Those long bus rides were hours in a gulag for those of us less "fortunate."

In the worst incident recounted from Romney's past, young Mitt led a group of students who pinned a fellow down while Romney cut his hair, expunging bleached blond locks from the campus of the exclusive Cranbrook school. The young man was traumatized, and no wonder. No one would forget an act like that, though Romney says he has. The victims, perhaps, have longer memories.

Romney also says he didn't think about homosexuality at that time: "That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s." That doesn't pass the straight-face test either. Prep schools, locker rooms, Boy Scouts: wherever young men gather the subject of "manhood" is discussed and modeled.

Seattle judge Gary Little taught part-time at Lakeside in Seattle, the famed Bill Gates (and my) alma mater. Little, who later committed suicide when his abuse of young men was exposed by the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer, had sexual relationships with some students during that time. While I didn't learn the specifics until after graduation, rumors of sodomy at an all-boys school were not unusual. Tensions, identities, fears, hormones: it was all palpable. A rumor at Lakeside in those days was that food in the Refectory (Lakeside lunch room) was laced with saltpeter to dampen the libidos of adolescent boys with no outlet, save each other.

One day at early '70s Lakeside, a teacher of mine saw me demonstrating a fencing stance in the hallway and asked me what I was doing with one arm holding an imaginary sword while the other was held above my head with a limp wrist. I told him it was fencing technique, and he said, "Well, you don't have to look like a fairy, do you?"

Any former prep schooler who says they weren't thinking about gayness at age 14 is lying. The shaping of manhood, the forming of cliques and tribal allegiances, the modeling of macho, bullying, the learned behaviors of creating "others" and abusing them, hazing, the running of the scapegoats, all thrive in that environment. It's not just a prep school thing. Public junior high or high school can be as bad or worse, but all-boy groups have stronger sexual undercurrents in this regard, at least in my experience.

There's little surprise in this. And all of us have stories from our teens that would shame us in public, "dumb things" or "hijinks" in Romney's phrase. Cluelessness is rampant, along with cruelty. Romney says he's changed man, and like George W. Bush, whose wild youth embodied the entitlement of a rich frat-boy, he says his wife was a catalyst for those changes. But if Romney's given up school ground gay-bashing, he still seems to have the classic traits of a prep school bully: belief in the system of privilege and superiority of the monied class, a hostility masked by a fake smile, and a cynicism that lets him think he can say anything without facing consequences.

These aren't the products of prep school, but they are often on display there, passed down, empowered by money and pedigree. He's still a bully, ideologically. Let Detroit go bankrupt. Fire the servants. Strap the dog to the roof.

He's apologizing for the boy he was, but it's not hard to see that the man he is wields an Etch-a-Sketch if not a pair of scissors.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.