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Willard Romney's Wooly Bully

A column by Steve Russell about bullying and Mitt Romney.

Is it fair to look back to something a presidential candidate did when he was 18? Depends on your tolerance for hypocrisy. Let those who did nothing wrong at that age avoid a seat on the Group W Bench, but I’m thinking the Group W Bench would be pretty crowded.

So, no, it’s not fair that we know about Barack Obama’s primary school in Indonesia, but somebody thought it was important enough to send a reporter over there and my barber told me, during the last presidential election, that Obama was “educated in a madrassa.”

We know that Obama called himself “Barry” when he played high school basketball, that he and his then single mother subsisted on food stamps at one point, and just recently we got a book featuring the recollections of his early girlfriends. How many of us want to be viewed though the lens of intimate relationships that didn’t work out?

The unfairness is bipartisan. Is it really relevant that George W. Bush partied his way through Yale on the “gentleman’s C”? He wanted to be your president, not your professor.

Another unfair aspect to the Romney roast is our changing attitude about bullying. I expect some Indians may have caught on a bit more quickly because of our raging youth suicide problem, but now most of the fact-based community understands that teenage cruelties can be lethal and adults should not tolerate them.

We know we can’t prevent all the hurts of adolescence, but most of us now at least try to teach kindness by modeling it. When I was young, I knew that Indian elders would not tolerate any open display of meanness so—honest in my old age—I can say I was more aware of my conduct when hanging at the homes of my Indian friends as opposed to my white friends, most of whom were very fond of the N word, something I did not hear from Indian parents.

So times have changed and we could hope that Willard Mitt Romney has changed as well. We could hope that, at some point, experience turned him away from bullying just as, at some point, experience turned George W. Bush away from alcohol and cocaine.

Here’s where it gets wooly. At least five people, interviewed at different times and places, remember a bullying incident, a forced haircut with the young Willard wielding the scissors while others held down the boy who was considered “queer” because he bleached his hair and wore it long in front.

For Indians, a forced haircut keys into some terrible historical memories that do not have any resonance in the dominant culture, but the application of force and the reaction of the victim leave no doubt that the incident was anything but playful.

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We have a teachable moment. If Gov. Romney comes forward with the story of how he learned that it’s wrong to abuse power, especially on the bodies of persons less powerful, the result is showing the nation why the adult Mitt Romney can be trusted to lead the most powerful military the world has ever known. The other result is to shame people who dredge up the bad acts of the young Willard to attack the adult Mitt.

What became of the teachable moment? He does not remember the incident! His classmates, some Democrat and some Republican and all deeply ashamed of their conduct, remember it in a way they would like to forget. Gov. Romney’s campaign reminds us that it was a long time ago.

If you are reasonably close in age to Gov. Romney, do you remember incidents that happened in high school or even earlier? I certainly do.

Another possibility is that inflicting psychic trauma on another kid just did not make enough of an impression on the young Willard to anchor a memory, and he did not experience the shame his cohorts experienced. If that is so, it disturbs a lot more than the potential for a teachable moment.

The final possibility is that he’s lying by denying, pulling the wool over our eyes and keeping his own eyes closed until the boogeyman of the past leaves the room.

It’s obvious in his statements that he’s adopted “high school” to address his problem connecting with ordinary people. One of the many ways I betrayed my class origins when I started hobnobbing with the Ivy League was the terrible faux pas of asking “Where did you go to high school?”

The proper question of a gentleman, I learned, is “Where were you prepared?”

Like most American voters, I was never “prepared,” and until this story came out, my only experience of “Wooly Bully” involved a Chicano kid from Dallas named Domingo Samudio, who called himself “Sam the Sham.” His act was a lot less dangerous than Romney’s.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.