Republicans jumped to Romney’s defence, accusing Democrats and parts of the media in exaggerating a schoolboy incident. Photograph: Carlos Osorio/AP
Mitt Romney issued an apology over his actions at high school after it was revealed that during his senior year he had played a leading role in a bullying incident against a fellow-pupil who was assumed to be gay.
After his campaign officials had insisted the presumptive Republican nominee for president had no recollection of any of the events detailed in the Washington Post story, Romney moved to limit the fallout on Thursday by using a radio interview to offer an apology to anyone hurt by what he referred to as “pranks”.
While Romney told the Kilmeade and Friends show on Fox News Radio that he could not recall the specific bullying incident, he said: “They talk about the fact that I played a lot of pranks in high school and they describe some that, well, you just say to yourself back in high school well I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologise but overall high school years were a long time ago.”
The Post story came only 24 hours after Barack Obama drew a contrast with Romney by becoming the first sitting president to support same-sex marriages. Romney responded by reiterating his opposition, arguing that marriage should be only between a man and a woman.
The Democrats pounced on the bullying story, circulating with an attached comment that Romney’s behaviour was “vicious”.
The Post reported that Romney, returning in 1965 from holiday to the Cranbrook school in Michigan, one of the most exclusive in the country, took exception to a new pupil, John Lauber. According to fellow pupils, Romney was unhappy that Lauber had bleached-blonde hair that flopped over one eye.
“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him,” an incensed Romney told one of his closest school-friends Matthew Friedemann, quoted in the Post article.
A few days later, Romney led a pack of fellow pupils to find Lauber, according to pupils involved. Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, was pinned down while Romney cut the offending hair with scissors.
Five students from the time offered corroborating accounts of the incident, four of them on the record. “It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me,” said Thomas Buford, the school’s wrestling champion and now a retired prosecutor, who said he joined Romney in restraining Lauber.
Buford said he subsequently looked out for Labuer, who had been “terrified” during the incident and apologised. “What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do,” Buford said. Lauber died in 2004.
Some Republicans jumped to Romney’s defence, accusing the Democrats and parts of the media in exaggerating a schoolboy incident.
During the radio interview on Thursday, Romney claimed that he was not overly worried about the Post piece. Asked whether he remembered the Lauber incident, he said: “You know, I don’t.”
He added that there was no homosexual connotation to the pranks he played. “Whether someone was homosexual, that was the furthest thing from my mind back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.”
He added that pupils who reported having pranks played on them “didn’t come out of the closet until years later”.
Romney said it had all happened long ago. “As for the teasing and the taunts that go on in high school, that’s a long time ago. For me, that’s about 48 years ago, if there’s anything I said that was offensive to somebody I’m certainly sorry about that, very deeply sorry about that,” he said.
Romney appointed an openly gay man last month as his foreign affairs spokesman, Richard Grenell. It was short-lived. After a barrage of criticism from conservative religious groups, Grenell resigned last month.
A Romney adviser, Ed Gillespie, speaking on MSNBC, said of the Post story: “Governor Romney doesn’t remember that at all. It was in high school. I suppose if there was an investigative team that went through my high school yearbook, they could find some incidents that I don’t remember that if I did remember I might not like.”
Gillespie added that those who know Romney “know that he is a caring, compassionate person” and “that has been evidenced in his career”.