First, Mitt Romney was mean to a dog. And now, he was a childhood bully.
That, at least, is what we would believe by reading the reporting on Romney's past. The now infamous story of Romney's pooch Seamus being forced to ride on the roof has dogged the presumptive GOP nominee for some time. And the Washington Post spent two full pages recounting how Romney reportedly bullied a classmate, forcibly cutting the boy's long blond hair. The boy was gay, suggesting that Romney was offended by his classmate's sexual orientation. Since the person in question has since died, we don't know his recollection of the event.
It's distressing that the media and the public are focused on such relatively inconsequential issues at a time when the country is emerging from a painful recession and coping with the fallout from political upheaval in the Middle East and economic upheaval in Europe. In Romney's case, the bullying episode is particularly murky when taken in context. It's entirely possible the young Romney had no idea of the boy's sexual orientation, but was merely offended by the kid's hippie look. And back in the '60s, it was, sadly, socially acceptable to make fun of gay people (who weren't even called "gay" back then). That doesn't make taunting a gay classmate acceptable, but the episode must be seen in context. So Romney doesn't deserve this excruciating judgment of his childhood, any more than President Obama deserves people speculating about what kind of girlfriends he had before he got married.
But there's a reason Romney's personal history has been examined so closely, and why it has become such a gossipy topic. Americans like to know not just what their leaders will do, but who they are. And Romney, who has a lived an unusually sequestered life, is a character riddle.
Is he a devoted dad and husband? It appears, by all accounts, that he is. Was it awful to stick a dog on top of the car for a family trip? Kind of. What do those things say about Romney, and what kind of president he would be? We still have no idea.
Here is a man who grew up in privilege, the son of an auto executive turned governor. He went to private school and graduated with degrees in both business and law from Harvard University. He is a member of a church that does not welcome outsiders—non-Mormons are not even supposed to enter the church. All those things are, independently, perfectly defensible. But they leave us wondering: Who the hell is this guy? When he's wearing jeans, does he secretly wish he was decked out in a business suit? Is he really wild and crazy in private as his wife, Ann, says? And why do we even care? We're supposed to be paying attention to the resume, not the Match.com profile.
But the decisions presidents must make are often not just about policy or even political calculations. Some of them come straight from the gut (such as, do I send in the Navy SEALs to attempt to take out Osama bin Laden?). Some of them are rooted more in a person's own value system and character. It's a big job with a lot of responsibility and power. We can't help wanting to know who these candidates are, and what makes them tick. The attention to Romney's personal life and childhood may be a bit unfair. But given Romney's closed-book demeanor, it was likely inevitable.