Romney Apologizes For High School Bullying Incident

Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is in damage control mode after an article in The Washington Post accused the candidate of bullying in high school. Romney says he does not remember the incidents. Several of his classmates independently recall him going after students who seemed different, vulnerable or effeminate.

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Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is in damage control mode after a Washington Post article accused the candidate of bullying in high school. Romney says he does not remember the incidents. Yet several of his classmates independently recall him going after students who seemed different, vulnerable, and effeminate. NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro joins us now.

And, Ari, let's be really careful here. What precisely is Romney accused of?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, these alleged incidents took place at Michigan's prestigious Cranbrook prep school, where Romney went to school in the 1960s. The most striking incident involved a student with long dyed blond hair. And Romney and a group of his friends allegedly chased this kid down, pinned him down, and forcibly cut his hair while the student cried and screamed for help.

Five of Romney's classmates of different political backgrounds told the Washington Post this story, saying that Romney was the one wielding the scissors. One of those students, Phillip Maxwell, who is now a lawyer, called it bullying supreme and told ABC News, quote: "It's a haunting memory, when you see somebody who is simply different taken down that way and is terrified and you see that look in their eye, you never forget it."

GREENE: You say perhaps targeted for being simply different. Was the student targeted because he was gay?

SHAPIRO: You know, the word gay was not really meaningful to high school students in the 1960s, but everybody who has talked about this incident says the student was effeminate and they describe it as part of a pattern.

Students also told the Post about another incident, a boy who later came out as gay, and when he spoke up in class, Romney allegedly shouted: Atta girl. Both of these victims died in recent years, so they can't tell their own story. We're relying here on the accounts of students who watched and in some cases participated in and now regret the incidents.

GREENE: OK. Well, Ari Shapiro, this revelation comes, you know, in the middle of a presidential campaign. How has Mitt Romney responded?

SHAPIRO: Well, he went on Fox News last night to address the story and here's part of what he said...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

MITT ROMNEY: I don't recall the incident myself, but I've seen the reports and I'm not going to argue with that. There's no question but that I did some stupid things when I was in high school, and obviously if I hurt anyone by virtue of that I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.

SHAPIRO: OK. But the Romney campaign also put out statements from supportive classmates of Romney's, saying that Romney had a sense of humor, he may have been a big of a prankster or a clown, but he was not at all malicious. The campaign is clearly concerned that these accounts have the potential to bolster a damaging narrative, portraying Romney as the privileged son of a powerful family who used his power against people who were relatively defenseless.

GREENE: You know, Ari, sometimes when things like this come out it's hard to tell at first how damaging it's going to be and whether the story just sort of disappears after a few weeks or whether it really sticks. Any sense at this point?

SHAPIRO: You know, we're in something of an anti-bullying moment in America right now, between the It Gets Better campaign and the documentary called "Bully."

And the timing of this story is interesting, because it was published the day after Romney's opponent, Barack Obama, expressed support for gay marriage. Clearly the Romney campaign is concerned enough about this story to go into high gear responding to it. Romney emphasizes that he's changed a lot in the nearly 50 years since high school and that everybody did things when they were a teenager that they may regret today.

GREENE: All right, Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: Good to talk to you, David.

GREENE: That's NPR News White House correspondent Ari Shapiro.

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