I read the story with dismay and painful recognition. Mitt Romney, then a high school senior, persuaded a half-dozen prep school classmates to join him in a vicious assault on a younger boy. Offended by the kid's long hair, Romney's pals threw him to the ground and pinned him down while Romney scissored the offending locks.
It brought back long-suppressed memories of an identical attack that I endured as a 14-year-old at Fountain Valley School in the 1950s.
I was an overweight, pimply, dreamy kid. I modeled myself on my mentor, F. Martin Brown, a teacher at the school who was a world-famous lepidopterist — in other words, a butterfly collector. I also wanted to be cool, so I styled my hair in a "Tony Curtis" — a kind of reverse ducktail that left a slicked-down cowlick hanging over the center of your forehead.
Butterfly collector? Punky hairdo? Fat, weak kid? I was easy prey.
One afternoon a handful of seniors jumped me, held me down as I screamed and tried to fight back, and cut my hair. It was a particularly nasty and personal piece of bullying. I was bloody and bruised as I got up and limped away. I was too humiliated and frightened to complain, and it wouldn't have done any good. Hazing and bullying were part of the culture. It was believed that boys were toughened and strengthened thereby.
None of the perpetrators were ever punished. To the contrary, they were applauded by peers for putting that "snotty little fairy" in his place.
Fountain Valley, like Mitt Romney's Michigan prep school, was then an all-male boarding school. Such schools, almost entirely populated by sons of the white upper class, were small, intimate and brutal.
Many students were there to get a superior education and to make contacts that would serve them well in later life. But some were dumped, sent away by parents who wanted the school to change and improve their sons.
My tormentors, I came to believe years later, had been sent to Fountain Valley by distant, disapproving, successful fathers who believed that boys, like working dogs, would benefit from harsh and early training.
Every evening after dinner, boarding students were required to file into the living room of the "Hacienda" (once the magnificent main residence of the Bradley Ranch, acquired by the school in the 1930s). We sat cross-legged on the floor and listened as Henry B. Poor, the school's headmaster, instructed us in the ways of the world.
I never listened. The school's principles were irrelevant. What counted was your place in an adolescent hierarchy, where the strong thrived and the weak had to band together for mutual protection.
Half a century later, does it matter that Romney — who has claimed not to remember this episode, but has admitted to other "hijinks" — was a tough, bullying kid, securely atop another adolescent hierarchy?
I think it does. In the all-but-vanished world of all-male boarding schools, kids who rejected bullying gained security through friendship and cooperation. Tough kids used threats, intimidation and violence to maintain their status.
As put by William Wordsworth, the child is father of the man. Such mindsets persist, however attenuated by time and experience.
Is Romney's eagerness for a military confrontation with Iran and an expanded military budget the product of sober reflection, or instinctive aggression? Does he want to accomplish something if elected, or does he just want to be the biggest dog of all? And does he really believe Barack Obama is a terrible president, or does he see Obama as an awkward, unworthy foreigner whom he would have beaten up in school?
Consider our recent presidents. Was FDR a schoolyard bully? Truman? Eisenhower? Kennedy? Nixon? Reagan? Carter? Clinton? Obama? Almost surely not. And what about LBJ? He was a poor, weak kid who became a legislative bully to right the wrongs inflicted upon the weak and despised.
Our great presidents — my list includes Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Eisenhower — have been restrained and conciliatory, not rash and aggressive. They have had firmly held, deep and transparent beliefs. They have protected the weak, and have been strong.
What kind of president would Romney make? I hope I'll never find out.