Yes, people change. In fact, the very WaPo article that broke the story of Mitt Romney assaulting his classmate also suggests that, once Mitt met and began dating the future Ann Romney while they were both still in high school, he did begin to change. And yes, it was a long time ago.
Nonetheless, people like David Brooks are wrong to say that this story doesn’t matter and is just “gotcha” journalism. It matters for at least three reasons.
- This was not just boys being boys. This was a vicious physical assault that, according to the WaPo story, haunted both the victim and the other perpetrators for years afterward. So David Brooks’s asinine comment (in the NPR story linked above) that “we’re all flawed and we’re all bound to have something like this in our past” is beyond ridiculous, and is emblematic of the kind of false equivalence that pundit types love to peddle these days. Of course we are all flawed, and it’s fair to say that many of us said or did things in our youth that we’d like to take back – but no, not all of us have “something like this in our past.” In fact, I would venture to say that precious few of us do.
- One of Mitt Romney’s biggest problems is that people don’t really like him all that much. And part of the reason is that he reminds them in many ways of that kid that they hated when they were growing up. That kid thought he was better than everyone else … he was mean and always got away with it … he was just a jerk … and many of Romney’s gaffes (“I like to fire people,” “corporations are people, my friend,” “I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners,” “ten thousand dollar bet,” and, of course, Seamus) tend to make people associate Romney with that kid. This story confirms that, in fact, Mitt Romney was that kid that they hated growing up. That’s a big problem for him.
- Romney’s claim that he doesn’t remember the incident (an incident that almost certainly happened precisely as the WaPo reported it, as it was confirmed independently by five ex-students who were there) simply beggars belief. There are really only three possibilities regarding that statement: (1) he’s lying; (2) he has a bizarrely selective form of amnesia; or (3) he did that kind of thing more than once, and the incidents have run together in his mind. None of those speak well of him. And the statement about not remembering isn’t from 47 years ago. It’s from right now, and it speaks to his character right now.
Stories like this matter when they either match or contradict an important narrative about someone. This one does both – it matches the “unfeeling rich guy” narrative, and it contradicts the “compassionate guy” story that he and his surrogates have been desperately trying to sell. It’s not make-or-break, but it’s another data point in the image that voters are quickly forming about Mitt Romney. And it’s not a nice one.