One of the many tensions in evaluating presidential candidates is that we don't want to disqualify them based on the stupidity of their youth. George W. Bush's blanket denial that "when I was young and irresponsible I was young and irresponsible" seems like a good rule. On the other hand, we want to know who these candidates are who seek to lead us (especially when they spend so much time offering us synthetic versions of themselves). We are looking for some piece of evidence, some sign of what makes them who they are. Many of us prize "character above all" in a president and a lot of those hints about presidential character are located in the stories of youth. If you want to be president, your résumé, accomplishments, and experience are not enough. Your origins matter.
Mitt Romney faces a new challenge today. At a time when he is not well defined and seeking to introduce himself to general-election voters, the Washington Post has published a deeply reported and richly told story about the Republican nominee’s youth that is extremely unflattering. According to five of Romney’s prep-school classmates, when Romney was 18 years old he rounded up a group of friends to pin down another student and cut his hair. Romney says he doesn't remember the incident but apologizes for any hurt he may have caused.
With all the challenges facing the country, why does this matter? It may not. The election will probably be decided on which candidate people think will do the best job helping the economy create jobs. Some might make a judgment about whether a candidate cares about them, so stories about uncaring or intolerant behavior certainly aren't helpful but not enough to swing a race.
The story is interesting though because voters—and how people choose to cast their ballots in presidential elections—aren't entirely rational. A lot of the stories we tell ourselves about our leaders and ourselves surround the myths we attach to the presidency. Even if we know kids do stupid things, we gravitate to stories from a president’s youth that validate our decision to choose him as our leader. Most people would agree that it is unfair to hold a person accountable for everything he did when he was in high school. But still we look, hoping to find evidence that a person was always meant to go on to do great things.
The history is as old as the republic—and sometimes not even true. George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and, unable to contain the lie, outed himself to his father. "I cannot tell a lie," he famously said. Or, rather, didn't say. The story is a complete myth. But it has power over our political conversation. When Haley Barbour was considering running for president he offered an opinion about why there were so many rumors about President Obama. "There's not much known about him, in college, or growing up. ... We don't know any of the childhood things," Barbour said. By comparison, he said we all knew that Washington “chopped down a cherry tree."
The story of Abe Lincoln, the American self-made man, starts in his youth by the fireside, reading and writing with chalk on a blackened shovel. When Bill Clinton needed to introduce himself to voters at his first Democratic convention, the footage of a teenage Clinton meeting John F. Kennedy was an iconic part of that process. When Democrats leaked a story about George W. Bush getting arrested for drunk driving as a young man, it cost the Republican 4 million votes, according to his top strategist Karl Rove. It may not have cost him the election, but you can’t say 4 million votes don’t matter. Or, put differently, Romney does not have 4 million votes to spare.
Barack Obama wrote his origin story at great length in Dreams From My Father. This was not new: Candidates now run having published at least one book that puts their past in the most favorable light. What was new was that Obama's came out before he was a presidential contender. It was more frank about past drug use than he might have been had he written it later, but that frankness may have helped dampen the issue. Despite the book, it was the unfamiliarity and winding nature of Obama's origin story that his opponents tried to use against him, as Hillary Clinton's strategist Mark Penn wrote that Obama's story of his roots in Indonesia and Hawaii exposed "a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and his values." Obama was disqualified by his origin story.*
Mitt Romney needs a new origin story. Right now he is on the very wrong side of the famous Charles Atlas advertisement. Today’s revelation, when it comes to high-school antics, couldn’t be much worse. Romney didn’t just bully another kid, who by accounts was new to the school, soft-spoken, and the target of ridicule; he organized a mob of other kids to do it. The Post story indicates that the young man may have been the object of abuse because of rumors he was gay. A story that casts a young Romney as intolerant and without basic empathy for someone who may have been gay is unfortunate the day after Barack Obama made the most empathetic statement in support of gay rights ever made by a sitting president. Right now Romney is the bully who gangs up on another student in an unfair fight. He is Biff, and as parents we teach our kids to root for McFly.
But Romney could take back his origins. A transformative moment in a person’s life or personal history can clean one’s slate and let one emerge as a different person. And Romney may have one. A year later, at 19, Romney was a missionary in France. He was involved in a searing car crash that by his own admission deepened his faith and changed his outlook on life. A near-death experience and a coma will do that to you. It would explain why there is no analog for the behavior described in the Post story. Romney and his team might consider having him tell that story again soon.
*Update, 7:53 a.m., May 11, 2011: This paragraph was added to the article after publication.