Could Mitt Romney be the type of person who led a group to physically restrain a classmate and forcibly cut his hair? Are his leadership skills those of a bully? Is he so callous about the damage he has done to others that he can't remember?
I can't pretend to know these answers based on yesterday's Washington Post exposé, though the corroboration by five former peers of different political stripes is troubling. We can't be certain what did or didn't happen decades ago, why and in what context. But unfortunately for Mitt Romney, American voters don't need to be sure of the answers to be vexed by those questions.
And unfortunately for the Republican Party, they have chosen a man whose behavior, demeanor and record makes us believe he could be the bully his old friends described.
First, there is the story itself. Coming on the heels of President Obama's "evolution" toward favoring gay marriage, this throwback to teenage homophobia was particularly sensational. However, the disturbing core of the anecdote isn't just that the boy came out as gay later in life; it's that Romney had no tolerance for someone who was different.
Contrast this story with the increasing acceptance of gays and lesbians in today's culture. At the same time, we also see the decreasing acceptance of bullying and hazing as normal childhood or adolescent fun — a movement that is pushing anti-bullying laws, sparking national discussions and buoying a documentary called "Bully."
That makes Romney's "haircut" both infamous and familiar. It's the kind of thing that could resonate with many families who are frightened of, and fighting against, emotional and physical abuse among our school-age youth.
When a boy at a prep school has long hair, he may be trying to be different, and he may be ready for some ridicule — but not for abuse. Maybe I wanted to be different when I grew my hair into a ponytail (that I've kept, counter to the fashion advice of many loved ones, for the past two decades). As a teenager, I was called "fag" by rowdy teens on a beach boardwalk; my hair was the target of chanting derision at Fenway Park in my 20s (I was wearing a Yankee hat, so I may have provoked it).
When you do something different, you know that you'll hear comments. But being assaulted for it is beyond the pale of youthful fun.
Americans know that behavior is unacceptable. They are not sure Romney knows the same.
We haven't seen Romney's evolution. His non-apology apology won't reassure voters. His air of privilege isn't helping. His career as a professional business bully feels like part of that same moral code.
It's not that Romney comes off as mean. Rather, it's that he seems callous — like he doesn't understand how his actions impact others. He doesn't see how the things that benefit him — gaining wealth, taking apart businesses or playing a prank to impress his friends — can hurt others. He sees the gains, but has never felt, been concerned by, or apologized for the pains.
There aren't enough surrogates speaking for his compassion, enough beneficiaries noting what policies in business and government lightened their load. So when a story like this breaks, it feels real.
Maybe it's not. But until Romney can put forth a narrative about the compassion of his campaign, the culture of caring embodied in his candidacy, there is only the other story for Americans to consider as they decide what kind of leader they want.