Mitt Romney defended himself against a report he bullied fellow high school students suspected of being homosexual, as President Barack Obama’s campaign suggested the presumptive Republican nominee is intolerant on gay rights.
Romney apologized yesterday for any high school pranks that might have been offensive following a Washington Post report that, according to others at the private school he attended, he led a group of boys in pushing down a screaming fellow student who was often taunted about his presumed sexual orientation.
“Back in high school, I did some dumb things, and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize,” Romney, 65, said in an interview on Fox News Radio yesterday. “I don’t recall the incident myself,” he said in a later interview on the Fox News television channel. “I had no idea what that individual’s sexual orientation might be.”
The report, a day after Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, added fuel to Democratic claims that Romney is out of step on gay issues. Democrats also tried to capitalize on Obama’s decision to endorse gay marriage with new fundraising appeals.
The harassment story was “not a particularly helpful one” for Romney, said John Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California. Still, he said, “I think a lot of us probably have forgotten some of the nasty stuff we have done in high school.”
The Post article included accounts from five classmates of Romney’s at the private Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. They said Romney led a group that shoved John Lauber, who later came out as gay, to the floor and cut his long, bleached-blond hair.
Phillip Maxwell told the Post he was in the dorm room where the incident occurred and described it as “vicious.”
Maxwell, a lawyer, later told ABC News he was among those holding Lauber down and Romney helped with the hair cutting. The incident is “a haunting memory,” he said.
Another student, Gary Hummel, a closeted gay at the time, said his efforts to speak in class were punctuated by shouts of “Atta girl” from Romney, the Post reported.
There is a renewed national debate on gay rights after Obama announced his personal support for same-sex marriage in a May 9 interview with ABC News.
Appeal to Donors
Obama’s campaign e-mailed an appeal to donors hours after the president said he resolved what for years was an “evolving” position on gay marriage and publicly reversed his previous opposition to same-sex unions.
“I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry,” said the campaign e-mail, which asked for donations.
The campaign also sought to raise millions more at three West Coast fundraisers last night, including dinner at the Los Angeles home of movie star George Clooney.
About 150 guests paid $40,000 a ticket to attend the event featuring Clooney and Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive officer of Glendale, California-based Dreamworks Animation Skg Inc. Supporters were also urged to contribute to a pro-Obama political action committee that can take unlimited donations to compete against similar super-PACs supporting Romney.
Obama’s campaign released a web video attacking Romney for opposing same-sex marriage and some legal benefits for gay couples.
“Mitt Romney doubled down on his belief that for the first time in our nation’s history, we should amend our Constitution to include discrimination,” Lis Smith, spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, said in a statement.
Romney supports amending the Constitution to define marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. He does back some domestic partnership benefits and expressed support yesterday for the right of gay couples to adopt children.
“I also know many gay couples are able to adopt children. That is fine,” Romney said in the Fox News television interview.
In an effort to tamp down reaction to the Post story, Romney aides set up the Fox radio interview. Campaign aides also reached out to former high school friends to share more positive recollections of Romney, according to a staff member.
‘A Thoughtful Guy’
“Mitt was a thoughtful guy with a great sense of humor who cared about his classmates,” said Richard Moon in one of the statements. “He would never go out and do anything mean spirited. Clownish, yes. Never mean.”
“Mitt has led an idyllic life,” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “In Mitt’s case, if the worst they can come up with in a man’s upbringing is maybe a little something in high school, an isolated incident, I don’t think it’s a character issue.”
The Post quoted fellow students, including a former girlfriend, who described Romney as an industrious leader at Cranbrook, where children from the state’s wealthiest families ate in a chandeliered dining room and studied in reading rooms decorated with frescoes and marble friezes. Romney attended the school while his father, George, headed American Motors Co. and served as governor of Michigan.
The school’s complex of buildings are “located on a beautiful 315-acre campus, known as one of the masterpieces of American architecture,” according to the Cranbrook website.
Romney, in the Fox News radio interview, said marrying his wife, Ann, whom he met while at Cranbrook, and going on a Mormon mission in France changed him into a “very different person.”
Romney, who graduated from high school in 1965, questioned how much of a candidate’s background is fair game, given that the incidents in question happened close to 50 years ago.
“There’s going to be some that want to talk about high school,” he said. “Well, if you really think that’s important, be my guest.”