Mitt Romney, third from left in front row, is pictured with classmates in… (Washington Post )
Mitt Romney apologized Thursday after a newspaper story described bullying behavior on his part when he was an 18-year-old senior at an elite, all-boys prep school in Michigan.
The Washington Post detailed a 1965 incident at Cranbrook School in which a buttoned-down Romney apparently was incensed by the dyed blond locks of a junior known for his "nonconformity and presumed homosexuality."
He led a "posse" of students in a charge against the boy, the Post reported. "He can't look like that," Romney reportedly told a close friend at the time. "That's wrong. Just look at him!"
Romney "tackled him and pinned him to the ground," the Post reported, then hacked off his hair with scissors as the crying boy screamed for help. The Post said it interviewed five witnesses, four of whom spoke on the record and recalled the incident in vivid detail. One man said he had wondered whether Romney would get in trouble at the school, known for its discipline, but that no one was punished.
The story immediately became fodder in the high-decibel daily war among political partisans. Romney, who had refused the Post's request for an interview, took to Fox News to address the 5,400-word article.
Romney told Fox News Radio's Brian Kilmeade that he did not remember the incident, but said it could not have been motivated by the boy's sexual orientation.
"I'll tell you," Romney said, chuckling, "the thought that that fellow was homosexual was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case. But as to pranks that were played back then, I don't remember them all, but again, high school days, I did stupid things. … And if anyone was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that."
He acknowledged that some of his pranks "might have gone too far."
After holding an afternoon rally for supporters on the banks of the Missouri River in Omaha, he apologized again during a TV interview with Neil Cavuto of Fox News. "I've seen the reports, not going to argue about that; I did some stupid things in high school," he said. "If I hurt anyone I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it."
The Post also described incidents in which Romney, the son of then-Michigan Gov. George Romney, said, "Atta girl," in class to a closeted gay student, and deliberately held a door closed while a sight-impaired teacher walked into it.
But it is the story involving John Lauber, described as "a soft-spoken new student … walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye," that has caused a stir. Lauber, the Post reported, died in 2004.
Phillip Maxwell, a childhood friend of Romney's who was named in the Post story, told ABC News that he witnessed the incident, which he called "assault and battery" and "bullying supreme." Maxwell, a lawyer, said he was "haunted" by the attack.
The Human Rights Campaign, a pro-gay rights group, posted a statement by Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, whose 1998 murder became a symbol of anti-gay violence.
"While this may seem like an innocent prank to some," Shepard said, "it was an act of torment against a child for being different. We expect the people we elect to be leaders in the charge against bullying so that all students are afforded the right to learn and grow in an environment free of fear. This incident calls into question whether Mitt Romney can be an advocate for the nation's most vulnerable children."
Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who ran John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, found the story "ludicrous" and said he did not believe Romney would suffer any political injury.
"It totally explains why there is such a collapse in trust in all these institutions — political candidates, parties, the election process, the media," Schmidt said. "The country is facing tremendously difficult challenges, and this is the dialogue that's going on? It's repelling to people in the electorate."
Jennifer Rubin, the Post's conservative blogger, attacked the story. She said the juxtaposition of the story with Wednesday's news that President Obama came out in favor of gay marriage cast Romney, who opposes same-sex marriage, in an unfair and misleading light.
"What is the point here?" Rubin wrote. "Frankly, this seems that an incident was plucked out of a long story on Romney's teen years to make an inference, without factual support, that Romney harbored anti-gay animus."
This story may grab attention, said Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who directs USC's Unruh Institute of Politics, but in the long run, he doubted it would affect voters' decisions in November.
"To the extent that there is staying power behind this story, it's not because a teenage Mitt Romney bullied someone, it's because he bullied someone over their sexual orientation," Schnur said. "But it's impossible to prove that one way or the other."
In any case, he added, "these types of stories tend to reinforce what people already believe about a political figure. If you're not going to vote for Barack Obama to begin with, then his admitting drug use when he was young is going to give you one more reason not to. If you don't like Mitt Romney, this is another reason not to like him. It's hard to envision many undecided voters making up their mind as a result of these things."