What do we look for in a presidential candidate? Political experience, intelligence, charisma, and confidence are probably high up on the list. Good looks and an adherence to Christianity clearly don’t hurt either.
But what about empathy?
What terrifies me the most about the scant possibility of a Romney presidency is not the fact that I disagree with his political ideology. Rather, it’s Romney’s seemingly complete lack of empathy.
This thought first occurred to me back when the “Seamus incident” made the news a few months ago. But one can easily argue that the incident doesn’t exactly prove that Romney is a heartless robot–after all, the victim in question was a dog, not a human, and who really knows how the dog felt anyway?
Slightly less ambiguous is this new bit of insight into Romney’s past:
Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.
This is what Mitt Romney did to a classmate at his boarding school when he was a senior. The classmate, John Lauber, was presumed to be gay and wore his bleached-blond hair long–at least, until Romney decided to do something about it.
According to the Washington Post, this story was remembered and corroborated independently by five of Romney’s former classmates. Romney’s response:
“Back in high school, I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that…I don’t remember that incident,” Romney said, laughing. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.”
I think it’s interesting that, despite claiming not to remember this incident, Romney nevertheless seems to file it into that large category of Dumb Things Teenagers Do. We all have those things, of course. For me, it was writing bad poetry and crushing on unattainable guys. For more typical teenagers, it’s probably something like getting really drunk when their parents are out of town and throwing up all over the Persian rug.
For the teenage Romney, though, it’s assaulting a fellow student because he’s (ostensibly) gay.
(Incidentally, Romney’s campaign has apparently been trying to get other former classmates of his to speak up in support of him. Good luck with that.)
It’s easy to make the argument that this happened decades ago and that Romney is probably a Completely Different Person now. Perhaps. But one writer on Mother Jones, discussing what “Romney the teenager” can tell us about “Romney the man,” says:
Romney the man has denied, and repeatedly denied yesterday, even remembering this incident. Sure, it was half a century ago, but he led a posse of his friends, tackled John Lauber in a hallway, dragged him into a bathroom, and then chopped off his hair while he struggled in terror. Even if you grant that this kind of extreme behavior was more common in a 1960s prep school than it is today, it’s really not the kind of thing you’d forget.
At least, you shouldn’t. So either Romney has done this kind of thing so often that the Lauber incident just blends into all the others, which suggests a far more vicious childhood than he’s owned up to, or else he remembers it just fine and is simply lying about it.
Furthermore, Romney has made his position on LGBT people clear more recently, too. As Governor of Massachusetts, he abolished a group looking into the issue of bullying and suicide in LGBT teenagers. One of his spokespeople outed a transgender woman running for political office in the same state, ending her career. Romney has also signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge, stating that he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, and donated $10,000 to that organization to support Proposition 8 in California. Of his stance on gay marriage as governor of Massachusetts, Romney has said, “On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage.”
So, while we can be reasonably sure that Romney wouldn’t physically bully anyone these days, I’m not so sure that his ability to empathize with people different from him has evolved at all.
Unfortunately for us–if Romney gets elected–empathy is essential for good leadership. (A U.S. Army Colonel makes that case very persuasively in this Washington Post column.) By definition, leaders are in a place of privilege compared to those they lead, so if they want to know how best to serve the people who elected them, they must be able to understand them and their lives.
For instance, take bullying. It’s one thing to take a stand against bullying because you were once bullied yourself, and another thing entirely to understand the harm that bullying does to individuals, families, communities, and society as a whole, without having experienced it firsthand. Since presidential candidates tend to be male, white, wealthy, Christian, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and so on, they are unlikely to have experienced things like bullying firsthand. That is why having empathy is essential if they are to understand this increasingly politicized issue.
For a politician, being empathic doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a bleeding-heart liberal; it just means you have to be able to understand how people different from you actually think, feel, and choose. You could still, for instance, choose to limit government spending for economic reasons while acknowledging and genuinely regretting the fact that your choices may hurt some people. You could propose and support ways of solving issues like social inequality without increasing government spending.You could understand that poor people are not always to blame for their own predicament, even if you don’t think that bringing them out of it is the government’s job.
You could recognize that you disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but understand that not everyone shares your beliefs and not everyone should have to live by them. You could disagree with gay marriage because of your religious beliefs, but realize that gay and lesbian teenagers still deserve protection from bullying.
You could, in other words, be a Republican with a heart.
In short, having empathy doesn’t mean being politically liberal. There are plenty of liberals who seem to lack empathy, and there are–hopefully–conservatives who have it. But Romney isn’t one of them. And that, much more so than his politics, is why I really hope he’ll never be President.