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Mitt Romney, Teen Barber

Unlike Paul Begala (“Once A Bully, Always A Bully,” Daily Beast) I’m not inclined to connect the story of Mitt Romney’s teenage homophobic cruelty to such adult cruelties as imposing layoffs on companies leveraged to the hilt by Bain Capital or making his dog Seamus ride on the roof of the family car. Clearly Romney had a mean streak in him back then. I have no idea whether he has a mean streak today (though, as Alec MacGillis has pointed out, he has some anger issues). 

What does interest me about this appalling story are two themes that have without question remained dominant in Romney’s adult life. One is hair. The other is control.

Let’s review the youthful bullying incident in some detail. The “soft-spoken” John Lauber, “perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality,” was minding his own business walking across the campus of Cranbrook, the Detroit-area all-male prep school where he was a junior, when Mitt Romney, a soon-to-graduate senior, spied Lauber’s bleached long hair (which drooped over one eye like Veronica Lake’s) and decided something had to be done about it. “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him,” Romney told a friend. Romney “kept complaining about Lauber’s look.” He couldn’t let it go. Finally, a few days later, Romney led a “prep-school posse” to Lauber, pinned him down, cut his hair, then retreated with his cheering conspirators to his dorm room. “It was vicious” recalled one childhood friend of Romney’s. Three decades later, Lauber (now deceased) would recall: “It was horrible.”

The homophobia inherent in the incident is, sad to say, the least extraordinary thing about this story. Scapegoating young males perceived to be gay was, for heterosexual young males of that era, not the exception but the rule. What was unusual was that the scapegoating would take such active form that one passive observer would recall, even at the time, experiencing shame that he’d done nothing to stop it. Romney didn’t merely mock Lauber for the way he looked. He imposed his will on Lauber and changed the way he looked through physical force. That’s the weird (and, even in the context of 1965, exceptionally cruel) part.

One thing we know from Michael Kranish and Scott Helman’s biography, The Real Romney (and from a 2007 Boston Globe profile that preceded it) is that Romney is a guy who gives more thought to hair than most other people. In November the New York Times ran a Page One story about Romney’s hair, which brought the paper some grief. But as I argued at the time, Romney’s hair merits attention, because (apart from his Mormon faith) it’s Romney’s North Star, a rare instance of consistency over many decades. Romney, Kranish and Helman write, “had grown up hearing people comment on his father’s sweep of slicked-back black hair, white at the temples.” Mitt himself had a “great head of hair.” And he idolized his father. But rather than style his hair in a manner similar to that of George Romney, Mitt coiffed himself in a manner similar to that of Edwin Jones, George’s top aide running the Detroit Mormon church. “He sat up front, to the side at a desk,” Romney would later recall, “keeping records. I remember that he had very dark hair, that it was quite shiny, and that you could see it in distinct comb lines from front to back. Have you looked at my hair? Yep, it’s just like his was some forty years ago.” 

To Romney, it would seem, hair had a lot to do with manhood, and with discipline, and with identity. And no doubt it also had a lot to do, consciously or not, with sexuality (see Pope, Alexander, “The Rape Of The Lock”). It wasn’t just this stuff that you cut and it grows back. It projected who you were. And apparently seeing Lauber project, with his peek-a-boo haircut, who he was really freaked Romney out.

The other thing we know about Romney is that he’s a bit of a control freak. There was that moment in the GOP debates when Romney tried to shut Rick Perry up by putting his hand on Perry’s shoulder. For a moment it looked as though Perry might slug him. Indeed, as MacGillis reminded TNR readers, when Romney, on an Air Canada flight in February 2010, did the same to the party-rock performer Sky Blu while attempting to persuade Sky Blu to tilt his seat forward, Sky Blu (who later called it a “condor grip”) actually did slug Romney. As Romney later related, “He gave me a good swat and he broke my hair [italics mine].”

What the odd anger outbursts that MacGillis documented in his article tend to have in common is loss of control followed by some socially inappropriate attempt to seize it back. For instance, while running the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, Romney got into an altercation with some police officers over their traffic directing, at one point infuriating them by directing the traffic himself. Lauber’s hair made Romney feel that something was out of control, and it was; Lauber was asserting, four years before the Stonewall riots, an identity that felt alien and threatening to Romney. And so Romney plotted—not spontaneously, but over multiple days—to set things right by ... well, let’s just say it. He raped Lauber’s lock.

I’m not sure what larger meaning Romney’s hair thing and his control thing would have for a Romney presidency. But these tics are weird, and, in the case of Romney’s control-freakiness, annoying and occasionally disruptive. In this instance where he cut Lauber’s hair, they were worse than that. They were violative and creepy and cruel.