The gaffe that lurketh–behind the non-gaffe

“He wanted to be glad, and he was glad, somewhere in the vanity of his ego, and yet, when he looked back at Munoz as he was leaving the green field, a bleak sadness suddenly seized his heart at the sight of the crestfallen face of the boy he had struck. And he knew then that war is no good, because vanquishing a man is as bitter as being vanquished.”

     Penned by Albert Camus in The First Man–the autobiographical novel cut short upon the author’s death– the above reflection has, I think, set the standard for a grown man’s looking back to assess his childhood cruelties, a standard which Mitt Romney has failed in braindead fashion to meet.      Camus’ stand-in character, Jacques, defeats a classmate, Munoz, in a schoolyard fight, and feels, amidst the praise and congratulations of his boyhood friends, horror at having so callously injured another child. Mitt Romney did something of the same sort–held a boy down, with the help of his posse, to forcibly give him a haircut.
     Last month’s Washington Post hit piece on Romney was itself insignificant, except to confirm the Post’s declining relevance and status, as outlined three weeks ago by Stephanie Ellison in Vanity Fair. How many times can they trot out Woodward and Bernstein? Most commentators were willing to brush aside the idiotic story, recognizing quite correctly that, as Ed Morrissey–I’ll likely never agree with him again–pointed out, it was a good reason “not to vote for a teenager for president.”

     Several commentators published half-witted psychoanalytic investigations, amongst them Paul Begala, who drew a straight line from Romney’s prep-school bullying to perceived adulthood abuses of power. TNR‘s Timothy Noah can’t quite bring himself to impugn Romney on this, but finds apposite Romney’s continual obsession with hair and power. Columns of this genus–are there latent homoerotic tendencies in the shining Mormon?–proved bankrupt and rather worse than silly, but Noah’s colleague Alec MacGillis struck a more profitable vein of argument, noting that Romney does seem to harbor a temper, contra boilerplate characterizations of Romney-the-robot. The merits of possessing “a temper” are open to debate; I find an occasional outburst indicative of conviction, if applied with discretion. Romney’s parking-lot tirade at the ’02 Olympics seems warranted—my antipathy toward Romney was momentarily abated—but his recent sudden vitriol at reporters is enough to stifle any such doubts or momentary pity. As Anthony Hopkins’ billionaire character quipped in The Edge, when co-star Alex Baldwin professes the difficulties in vetting the motives of friends when one is wealthy: “Never feel bad for a man with a plane.”

     Notwithstanding the total irrelevancy of Romney’s high school actions, his apology was incredibly thoughtless and should be decried as such. I gave it a couple weeks for a latent re-apology, but the only significant position he’s taken since is an elbow-rubbing with the Donald. Even to those who dismiss the story, his inability to adequately address the charges does not augur well for his image.
Romney began by hedging that he “didn’t remember the incident” and then apologizing “if he offended or hurt anyone.” But it’s quite clear the incident occurred and was of lasting significance to those involved. Now there is ample latitude in how well we remember high school: I don’t remember much of my formative years, but the mistakes I made, especially in treating other people poorly, are seared into my addled memory. It may very well be the case that I’ll have no inkling of my high-school failings forty years hence, but even if this were true of Romney’s memory-retrieval abilities, he didn’t have to say it: why not simply lie, spin a story of repentance, and snatch a teachable moment from political slander? Every candidate assuages personal history details, often for selfish reasons, and the practice would be made much less contemptible in this case. The little lie isn’t in itself significant if in service of a better cause, in this case recognizing the persistent social disease of bullying and opposing the trivialization of same.

     The apology of a competent, conscientious man might have begun by noting the stupidity of the Post’s piece and then describing how the incident had stuck with him and now disgusted him. By accepting responsibility and conveying a serious sense of remorse, Romney would have displayed moral gravitas and initiative; instead, he came off as dismissive and bewildered. Too much strain is often placed on attempts to conjure a “record of behavior” in candidates, but Romney has, in the past three weeks, displayed a clear indifference to suffering–“I’m not concerned about the very poor”– and impatience toward those who don’t want to listen to him drone on about the economy. Two reporters, asking rather harmless questions about gay marriage and maijuana, have already been treated to the Mitt rejoinder: “Is this really what we should be talking about?” Amazingly, a few of the three hundred-plus million citizens might vote on issues of their own choosing; it’s a somewhat elementary truth of campaigning—promise anything to anyone—that Mitt has yet to learn. And even if you won’t promise them something, at the very least don’t tell them their concerns aren’t important.

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