There was one other child in my class, though, who reminded me of a different sort of pain. Her name was Coretta, and before my arrival she had been the only black person in our grade. She was plump and dark and didn't seem to have many friends. From the first day, we avoided each other but watched from a distance, as if direct contact would only remind us more keenly of our isolation.Not exactly a campaign bio, is it? There is no happy resolution, no purging of the remorse expressed. Obama was ten at this time.
Finally, during recess one hot, cloudless day, we found ourselves occupying the same corner of the playground. I don't remember what we said to each other, but I remember that suddenly she was chasing me around the jungle gyms and swings. She was laughing brightly, and I teased her and dodged this way and that, until she finally caught me and we fell to the ground breathless. When I looked up, I saw a group of children, faceless before the glare of the sun, pointing down at us.
"Coretta has a boyfriend! Coretta has a boyfriend!"
The chants grew louder as a few more kids circled us.
"She's not my g-girlfriend," I stammered. I looked to Coretta for some assistance, but she just stood there looking down at the ground. "Coretta's got a boyfriend! Why don't you kiss her, mister boyfriend?
"I'm not her boyfriend!" I shouted. I ran up to Coretta and gave her a slight shove; she staggered back and looked up at me, but still said nothing. "Leave me alone!" I shouted again. And suddenly Coretta was running, faster and faster, until she disappeared from sight. Appreciative laughs rose around me. Then the bell rang, and the teachers appeared to round us back into class.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was haunted by the look on Coretta's face just before she had started to run: her disappointment, and the accusation. I wanted to explain to her somehow that it had been nothing personal; I'd just never had a girlfriend before and saw no particular need to have one now. But I didn't even know if that was true. I knew only that it was too late for explanations, that somehow I'd been tested and found wanting; and whenever I snuck a glance at Coretta's desk, I would see her with her head bent over her work, appearing as if nothing had happened, pulled into herself and asking no favors.
Dreams from My Father (pp 60-61).
Most children (my dearworthy wife excepted) are cruel at some point. Most of us, I suspect, remember some incidents with remorse. That is what struck me when I read the well-documented tale in yesterday's Washington Post of Mitt Romney's sometimes cruel prep school pranks -- including, most notably, his raising of a posse to pin down a boy widely recognized as homosexual while Romney cut off a shock of his signature bleached-blond hair. The Post corroborated the story with five classmates, four of whom spoke on the record, and three of whose recollections were noteworthy for the remorse expressed:
“It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me,” said Buford, the school’s wrestling champion, who said he joined Romney in restraining Lauber. Buford subsequently apologized to Lauber, who was “terrified,” he said. “What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.”Romney claims not to remember the incident, though today he offered a generic apology:
“It was a hack job,” recalled Maxwell, a childhood friend of Romney who was in the dorm room when the incident occurred. “It was vicious.”
“He was just easy pickins,” said Friedemann, then the student prefect, or student authority leader of Stevens Hall, expressing remorse about his failure to stop it...
Friedemann, guilt ridden, made a point of not talking about it with his friend and waited to see what form of discipline would befall Romney at the famously strict institution. Nothing happened.
“Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that...I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far, and for that I apologize.”
Imagine, for a moment, a candidate who could say, "to this day it troubles me...what a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do." Perhaps no candidate could risk that -- at least, not less than twelve years before running for president (Dreams from My Father was published in 1995).
But his current reaction, more than the event itself, captures what bothers me about Romney as a candidate, besides the extremist policy commitments he's made. He won't own up to anything; he won't take a stand when the situation calls for it; and he has no compunction about lying from sunrise to sunset.
If Romney has a domineering side, The Real Romney musters good evidence that in private life he can also be quite caring, generous with his time and money, ready to engage in the problems encountered by neighbors, friends and Mormon church members. I would not find it difficult to believe that later life ironed out of him the exuberant preppy cruelty captured by the Post article. It's in his constant lying about Obama and clinically cynical policy shifts that I read a ruthlessness, a willingness to make roadkill of anyone or anything (Medicaid, Planned Parenthood) who gets between him and his goal.
Ambition is a necessary condition of major political success, as Jonathan Bernstein likes to remind us. But ambition unconstrained by other commitments is dangerous. And whatever the political scientists would have us believe, we all have to make a judgment about whether any given candidate puts the public interest first.