Many of us have childhood memories of being singled out for the age-old crime of being different than the crowd. Fewer have experienced a traumatic incident as one alleged to have occurred to a high school student named John Lauber almost five decades ago. Some of the bullies recently “outed” their role in the event to The Washington Post (5/11), which included a known public figure.
The details are both troubling and cliche. In 1965 at Cranbrook School, an upscale Michigan prep, John Lauber was a transfer student whose effeminate habits made him “easy pickins'” for upperclassmen. One senior, a young scion of wealth and power named Mitt Romney, was especially offended by Lauber’s appearance. If the story, repeated by several classmates, is true, then the former Massachusetts Governor was John Lauber’s chief tormentor.
In the retelling young Romney (who was eighteen at the time) led the group that surrounded, tackled and held down Lauber. Ignoring his protests, an incensed Romney used scissors to slice off Lauber’s long, bleached hair. Romney then led the cheering group back to the dorm. That was back in 1965.
With Lauber’s death in 2004, the story will be hard to verify. Nevertheless, three classmates gave similar versions of the incident with a remarkable sense of clarity. And remorse. In comparison, Romney’s questionable failure to recall any aspect of the incident is only surpassed by his definition of such actions as “hijinks.” That term fits this incident as equally as Homer Simpson strangling Bart could be passed off as parental discipline.
Before being tossed into the legion of second-guessers, hindsight experts and democratic hatchetmen eager to dissect Mitt Romney’s political aspirations, let me first say what this column is not about: It’s not about politics. I normally make it a point to stay well outside of such turbulent waters, but the involvement of a public figure is central to the theme of injustice raised by these allegations.
As a father of two boys I recognize that, well, hijinks happens. I also know that the term is not synonymous for felony crimes, such as unlawful imprisonment. That would be the Washington statute applicable to the physical restraint used to hold down John Lauber. Tackling him and then using scissors to cut his hair would be, at minimum, a gross misdemeanor assault.
To better understand the need for perspective on the Lauber incident, let me introduce you to John. The son of a die-hard gangster, John is a boy of seventeen who joined a gang by the age of twelve. At age fifteen he shot a rival and was arrested. His victim survived, but John was remanded to adult court for trial. He was convicted of drive-by shooting and, as a gang member, received the enhanced sentence of 35 years in prison.
I testified at John’s trial and watched as he and his family took the news. It was gratifying to know that a hardened gang member would be kept off the streets, but it was also difficult knowing the actions of a fifteen-year-old boy would reverberate until his 50th birthday.
I am aware that the severity of John’s crime was light years beyond the allegations leveled at Mitt Romney as a young man. Nevertheless, our legal system and our society holds a boy accountable for his actions, and it is the man who will bear the yolk. Diminishing Romney’s alleged involvement in a criminal act is hypocrisy – we do, in fact, hold people accountable for the sins of their youth.
The Lauber incident is clearly a divisive story. Republicans will disregard or refute it; Democratics will hype and defend it. In the end it may serve only as a footnote to a political campaign, and without irrefutable proof of its veracity that might be for the best. Yet as a public figure, Governor Romney’s actions as a young man should at least be held to the same standard as John’s, whose background held little in the way of opportunity.
Whether or not The Post story is true, we should at least agree that the hijinks – or any other term that diminishes bullying or criminal behavior – should never be used to describe the assault of a helpless individual targeted solely for the audacity to be different.