Empathy and Presidential Candidates

Willard Romney is woefully lacking in sensitivity and empathy. Not only that, but claiming he doesn’t remember incidents of bullying is unbelievable, or else he is a psychopath.

South River Public School 197x
South River Public School 197x

Since I skipped 2nd grade, I was nearly always the youngest in my class, and thus was bullied frequently until I learned to fight back, or discovered how to defuse situations of impending bullying. I can still vividly remember a few incidents, and how my nickname was “The Wildman of Borneo” after exploding in rage once to stop some older kid from fighting me, and then repeating that explosion a few times subsequently, until I stopped being a target.

Unlike Willard, more vivid in my memory are incidents where I was the bully, where I initiated fights with weaker foes, to my adult shame.

Like Dale Whats-his-name in 5th grade South River Public School who I picked a fight with and beat to a blubbering, quivering mass. His family had come from a city somewhere, North Bay maybe, or Toronto, and had only moved to tiny, rural South River, Ontario that fall. He was different from the rest of the country kids. We were friends for most of the year, I was his only friend actually, but something happened and I picked a fight with him, and won it decisively. I still recall at the end of the fight, I was sitting on top of him, punching him over and over while he wailed. I stalked away with my friends, who had all witnessed the beating, and Dale ran inside. And like it just happened Tuesday, I can recall Mrs. Sullivan, the fifth grade teacher, coming up to me later that day and asking what happened in a worried voice. “Dale is really upset”, she said. I realized what I had done, and was quiet, flushed even. The last month of school, I just avoided making eye contact with Dale, and since we moved to Toronto that summer, I never went back to that school again.

Why I'm Glad We Moved Away from East Texas
Why I’m Glad We Moved Away from East Texas

Or Harold Kennebrew, in 8th grade, Newton Junior High in East Texas,  a fat, black, insecure kid, who turned into my victim in the horribly racist culture of East Texas. In that area of Texas, there was certainly vestiges of Jim Crow lingering like a miasma, and in school there were two distinct spheres of black and white kids without much overlap, except perhaps during football games. On one day, the 8th grade boys were assembling in the gym, prior to PE class, and Harold walked by. I stuck my foot out so he tripped, than threw my library book at him (a massive volume of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories – several hundred pages thick). We boxed a bit, neither winning, but I landed blows on his face, and he didn’t land any on me and in fact didn’t really punch much. Assistant Coach Horn came over and broke up the altercation, and gave us each a couple of whacks with his paddle. The coach gave me a weird look, I recall his expression to this day. He was black, as was a razor sharp classmate who came up to me a few moments after (I wish I remembered his name, but I remember his face, and that he was the undisputed alpha male of the black kids) and said words that still echo, “What, are you going to fight all the black kids now?”

He was absolutely right: I had started the fight with Harold Kennebrew just because he was an easier target for my adolescent anger. Black kids could get into worse trouble on the playground if they fought white kids, there was a double standard at work. I’m still regretful of my actions, all these long years later, though to my credit, that was the last fist fight I picked with a black kid. Luckily for my mental development, that summer we moved the decidedly less racist, so-called liberal oasis of Texas, Austin.

If Romney can’t recall his actions as a high schooler, then there is something mentally wrong with him, or else he is lying to avoid scrutiny for his actions. I don’t necessarily consider Romney’s Cranbrook history as that relevant to 2012, except it is an insight into his character, and his flawed view of the world. Being a corporate raider, destroying companies from within, firing workers, these are much easier tasks to accomplish if you are already lacking in empathy, if you are a bully.

I don’t want a bully to be my president.

Stacks of Knowledge and Honor
Stacks of Knowledge and Honor

Charles Blow of the NYT writes, in part:

There is so much wrong with Romney’s response that I hardly know where to start.

But let’s start here: If the haircutting incident happened as described, it’s not a prank or hijinks or even simple bullying. It’s an assault.

Second, honorable men don’t chuckle at cruelty.

Third, if it happened, Romney’s explanation that he doesn’t remember it doesn’t ring true. It is a searing account in the telling and would have been even more so in the doing. How could such a thing simply melt into the milieu of other misbehavior? How could the screams of his classmate not echo even now?

Fourth, “if someone was hurt or offended, I apologize” isn’t a real apology. Even if no one felt hurt or offended, if you feel that you have done something wrong, you can apologize on that basis alone. Remorse is a sufficient motivator. Absolution is a sufficient objective. Whether the person who was wronged requests it is separate.

Lastly, this would have been an amazing teaching moment about the impact of bullying if Romney had seized it. That is what a real leader would have done. That is what we would expect any adult to do.

A 2010 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that 77 percent of Americans believed that bullying is a “serious problem that adults should try and stop whenever possible.” Romney passed on that chance.

While I have real reservations about holding senior citizens to account for what they did as seniors in high school, I have no reservations about expecting presidential candidates to know how to properly address the mistakes they once made.

This is where Romney falls short, once again.

There was a malicious streak at the core of the high-school boy in these accounts. Romney’s muddled and confusing explanation and half-apologies only reinforce concerns that there is also something missing from the core of the man: sincerity and sensitivity.

Targeting the vulnerable is an act of cowardice. The only way to vanquish cowardice is to brandish courage. Romney refused to do so. This is an amazing missed opportunity to exhibit a needed bit of humanity by a man who seems to lack it.


(click here to continue reading Mean Boys – NYTimes.com.)

Mixed Messages
Mixed Messages

Ruth Marcus adds:

Romney’s reported leadership in the episode; his merciless wielding of the scissors to snip off the bleached-blond hair that seemingly so offended his sense of propriety; his continuing cuts in the face of John Lauber’s cries for help — these do not speak well of him.  You want to imagine your future president in the role of the wise-for-his-years leader who intervenes to calm the howling mob of his more foolish peers.

But that is not the chief concern with the Romney story. The real problem lies in the adult Romney’s reaction to it — or, more precisely, his non-reaction. Others involved in the episode told The Washington Post’s Jason Horowitz of their continuing shame and guilt. One said he apologized to Lauber years later.

Romney, judging by his own words, seems not to have given the ugly encounter a second thought. His campaign’s initial response was denial. “The stories of fifty years ago seem exaggerated and off base, and Governor Romney has no memory of participating in these incidents,” said spokesman Andrea Saul.

As it turned out, The Post story was so detailed, gripping and well-sourced that brush-off wasn’t going to suffice, so response No. 2 was to issue the classic, conditional quasi-apology. “Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,” Romney said in a radio interview.  “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.”

Hijinks? Pranks? This was an assault, pure and simple. Romney insists that sexual orientation had nothing to do with the incident he doesn’t recall. “I certainly don’t believe I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.” But it’s clear that Lauber’s offense lay in his being different from the others on the island of Cranbook prep, whatever label was attached

So I don’t really blame Romney for what he did. I blame him for what he fails to remember, or to acknowledge, that he did. Imagine if Romney’s response to The Post story had been to own up to the episode and talk about his enduring regret.

“I would think this would be seared in his memory,” one classmate who participated, Philip Maxwell, told the New York Times. “Certainly for the other people that were involved, nobody has forgotten.”

That Romney has forgotten, or says he has, speaks volumes — more than anything that happened on a spring day in Michigan half a century ago.

(click here to continue reading Romney’s troubling reaction to the bullying story – PostPartisan – The Washington Post.)

2 thoughts on “Empathy and Presidential Candidates

  1. Beth says:

    When I heard Romney’s response to the allegations I was appalled. This was an assault, it wasn’t mere hijinx and I can’t help but feel that something is wrong with him if he’s truly forgotten. That being said, I can say from casual observation and some personal experience that an incident that can be a pretty big damn deal to the bullied is oftentimes meaningless to the bully; it’s just another day. I don’t think they see themselves as doing something wrong, therefore those long term memories are not being created. My one personal example would be the guy I flamed on my blog. He contacted me and basically said, “I have no idea who you are.” A years worth of tormenting me daily made no impression on this guy or his little pack of friends.

    Have you ever reached out to Harold?

    On a different note, I’m still having a hard time with the story about Romney’s dog where he put it in its crate, strapped the crate to the top of the car and then drove like that. I think he wrote it off as him being young and stupid. If he were 4, I buy that. In his 20’s, that’s something else.

  2. Per the Wikipedia entry for the Seamus incident, Romney was 36 years old http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seamus_incident

    and yes, that’s troubling too, also seems to say a lot about Willard’s lack of empathy.

    And I doubt your online attacker really meant that – just was covering for himself. The only caveat being online interactions are more casual.

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