I was a few years behind Mitt Romney at Cranbrook. I even lived in the same dorm, although he was gone before I arrived. I’ve been bemused by all the references to Cranbrook as “prestigious” and “elite.” My experience is better described as hyper-competitive, Dickensian, unforgiving – a gulag.
OK, maybe not “gulag,” although I’m pretty sure the kid across the hall from me my first year was named Ivan Denisovitch.
These bullying stories are attempts at manufactured controversy, an element of the current politics as blood sport mentality. I am not a Mitt Romney apologist or even supporter, necessarily. I can think of a lot of reasons he may not be presidential timbre, but this incident isn’t one of them. It was bullying, pure and simple, an inexcusable, mean-spirited, insensitive act.
I would hate to have the 18-year-old Mitt Romney as depicted in these stories for my president, but that’s kind of the point. He was an adolescent. His testosterone level was probably higher than his blood count. He was living in an all-male boarding school, given too much power and too little supervision by a system designed to desensitize its participants. But people grow, for God’s sake. If you don’t like how Mitt Romney grew, don’t vote for him, but consider him as he is now.
Also, don’t evaluate these stories by today’s standards. Learn something about the context first. George Orwell’s brilliant essay, “Such, Such Were The Joys,” describes the English prep school system on which places like Cranbrook were loosely modeled. He outlines in sometimes horrific detail the severity built into the system. In England, the severity helped the schools train men who would rule an empire’s possessions in England’s – not the inhabitants’ – best interests.
American prep schools used a less onerous, but still strict system to train captains of industry, people who wouldn’t be paralyzed by fear when they risked a fortune on an untried concept, or by guilt when they wreaked havoc on thousands of people by shipping their jobs overseas. One step was to put constant pressure on the students to compete and excel because that’s what leaders do. Another was to give older students practice at exercising power by giving them a measure of authority over younger students.
On balance, Cranbrook was probably the most valuable experience of my life. It instilled drive and ambition, taught decision-making and helped develop judgment. It was not, however, uniformly enjoyable.
When I arrived, there was a self-perpetuating pattern of bullying fueled by seniors who every year would pay backwards the abuse they received as underclassmen. Some of my closest Cranbrook friends believe this was intentional, unwritten school policy. Perhaps it’s splitting hairs, but it has always seemed more that the school viewed it as an unfortunate, but unavoidable, side effect of its brief of preparing students for a harsh and unforgiving world. They didn’t support bullying, but placing a priority on protecting students against it was contrary to the mission.
I fared better than most. Never got a “chunky swirly,” for instance, which involves your head, a flushing toilet, and significant exposure to e. coli. Even so, to me, who actually lived in that world, the Romney incident seems almost laughably tame. One senior had it in for me. He pounded me repeatedly, because he could. Just once, I wish I had had the presence of mind to say, “Hey, Dave, how about you don’t slam my head into that sharp corner today and just chop off my hair instead?”
Ditto when one of the super elite – a senior prefect, football player, and simian pituitary case – came up behind me in the Quad with some his friends, dumped my books and bloodied my nose by slamming it in the snow. When I looked upset, he sneered, “Whatsamatter, ‘Lang-whirrrr-thee?’ You gonna cry about it?” Then he headed off with the rest of his troop of silverbacks in search of bamboo shoots and photo opportunities with Jane Goodall. Good times, good times.
My point is not to justify Romney’s behavior. What he did is no better because other people did worse. However, let’s not pretend that the politically correct, superficially inclusive, everybody-gets-a-trophy world we live in today has always existed and that Mitt Romney has always been out on the fringe of it. He may not have been the conscience of his class, but in that place, in that time, he wasn’t the monster the people behind this story would like us to believe.
If you’re determined to worry about something, worry about the fact that he doesn’t remember the incident. I still wake up in a cold sweat about the fat kid I hit in camp when I was 10. I remember every time I bullied another kid, including a couple at Cranbrook, and they still make me ashamed of myself. I don’t expect a president never to have done anything wrong, but I’d like him to care enough to lose a little sleep over his mistakes.
Or at least know they happened.
Portland-area resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.