Kinsley: Mitt Romney, the early years

How well I remember the day many years ago that I was walking through the quad at Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Choate: Michael Kinsley’s May 13 column misspelled the name of a Connecticut school. It is Choate, not Choat.

Suddenly I heard a voice shouting, “There he is, the bastard!” It was Mitt Romney, who went on: “He’s the guy who favors health insurance reform with” — he spat out the words — “an individual mandate. Let’s get him, boys.” I tried to outrun them, but soon enough I was pinned to the ground as they whipped me with the brochures I had been handing out and said things like, “You want to cover preexisting conditions? We’ll show you some preexisting conditions.”

I have been wracking my brain the last couple of days for some memories of life at Cranbrook, which I attended during the 1960s, as did Romney. The Washington Post reported Thursday that Romney once led a gang of bullies who held down an unpopular student and forcibly cut his hair. Did this really happen? And if so, should the antics of a teenager nearly 50 years ago affect our assessment of Romney as a potential president?

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

Apparently it did happen. The Post has five witnesses, and Romney doesn’t deny it. Or rather, in what we are coming to see as his characteristic style, he neither admits it nor denies it but has issued a shifting series of apologies that add up to an impatient plea of nolo contendere — roughly translated as: “Whatever, let’s move on.”

The Post makes Cranbrook seem like a military academy, where one student could actually take offense at another’s haircut. The Romney camp would rather paint it as “Animal House,” where cruel pranks were actually all in good fun. I would say it was somewhere between these two extremes. The teaching was excellent, but there was no cult of academic rigor. Believe it or not, I was unaware of the concept of a prep school until I got to college and met kids from Andover and Choat. Cranbrook was a place you went if your parents cared more about your education than belonging to a country club — or that’s how I saw it. I can’t speak for Mitt.

And what about bullying? Was this just one unfortunate teenage episode? Is the Romney of today a completely different person who has nothing in common with his younger self? Let me recount a few other episodes that might cast light on these questions. In fact, it’s clear that Romney has stayed remarkably consistent throughout the years.

As I recall, it was important policy issues like healthcare reform, rather than purposeful cruelty or the length of someone’s hair, that drove Romney and his posse to take matters into their own hands. Any defense of the federal deficit enraged him. Overregulation in any field could lead him to call out the dogs. One questioned so-called right-to-work laws or said anything favorable about unions at one’s peril. In fact, any remark that indicated a favorable attitude toward Washington could produce a sneering riposte (“If you think Washington is so great, why don’t you just go there, you creep?”) and another torrent of abuse. One of his favorite insults was: “Your mother is assistant secretary of Agriculture! Take it back? Make me, you future federal bureaucrat. And screw the pandas.”

Or maybe I just imagined all that. It’s been a long time.

At Cranbrook (and this part is really true), we were all required to write a “theme” a week, about 1,000 words on an established cycle of topics: autobiographical article, informal essay, formal essay, light verse, serious verse and so on. Decades later, this is essentially how I make my living — about 1,000 words a week on a recycling list of topics: the national debt, abortion, capital punishment, global warming, nuclear winter, North Korea, South Korea and so on. I can only hope that my scribblings have long since been destroyed. Romney probably hopes so even more.

Romney was three years ahead of me at Cranbrook — he was in 10th grade when I started in seventh. I barely knew him, and he didn’t know me at all. I should have been paying more attention. My complete lack of anecdotes about someone I attended a very small school with for three years — and who I should have guessed might pop up again in the wider world — is a professional embarrassment that has left me no choice but to make some up, including all of those above. I apologize to my readers for this, but I really had no choice.

Michael Kinsley, a former editorial page editor of The Times, is a Bloomberg View columnist.