There is literal truth, grounded in fact; there is poetic license, which is truth stretched a little to make it seem stronger; and then there is emotional truth, which is what some people imagine must have happened, based on their view of the world. For an example of the latter, we go to Mutual Contempt, Jeff Shesol’s book on the feud between Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy, which tells of the first draft of William Manchester’s Death of a President, (recounting the murder of Bobby’s brother).
Manchester’s opening scene described John Kennedy’s visit after his election to the LBJ ranch in Texas in vivid and startling terms. So vivid and startling were they that they brought forth a letter from Bobby’s friend Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. that he circulated among Bobby’s associates, warning them that their author was jumping the shark. Johnson was drawn as an ugly and menacing figure: He didn’t just walk, he “heavily lumbered”; he didn’t just sit down, he “sprawled.” Worse, he forced Kennedy to go hunting with him one morning and, though the president-elect had resisted, insisted he shoot a deer. The image of the animal “caught in his sights” had haunted Kennedy, as Manchester put it, leaving a deep “inner scar.” This was hardly the best way to open a book about a man who would be killed by a rifle in Texas, and, as Schlesinger said, defined the book as “a conflict between New England and Texas, decency and vulgarity, Kennedy and Johnson.” Schlesinger thought that the LBJ portrait “too often acquires an exaggerated symbolism—so much that some critics may write that the unconscious argument of the book is that Johnson killed Kennedy (that is, that Johnson is an expression of the forces of violence and irrationality that ran rampant through his native state).”
Evan Thomas, Manchester’s editor (and father of the present-day author and journalist), feared his author was so “carried away that his ‘tragic narrative’ had become a ‘fairy tale,’ ” in which the Texans appeared as a collection of rednecks and rabble, “plucked from the dung heap by magical Jack.” In the end, Thomas prevailed, and the incident was shortened, toned down, and moved to a different part of the narrative, but for Manchester and a fairly large number of people, the “emotional truth” of the matter rang true: Kennedy had been killed not only in but by Texas.
In Manchester’s footsteps comes the story, run in the Washington Post two weeks ago, that, much as Lyndon Johnson and Texas disposed of John Kennedy, Mitt Romney and Cranbrook, the prep school in Michigan that he went to in the 1960s, broke and ruined the life of John Lauber, a schoolmate in the class just below his, simply because Lauber was gay.
Ostensibly an exhaustive study of Mitt Romney’s schooldays, the piece starts and ends with Lauber, who is framed as Mitt Romney’s opposite—small, frail, unconnected, and vulnerable. And where Romney had the short, dark, clipped hair of the era, Lauber’s was long, dyed blond, and dipped over one eye in the manner made famous by the starlet Veronica Lake. This apparently aroused the ire of Romney, who one day led a “prep school posse” that tackled the youngster and held him down for Romney to clip off his blond locks. Lauber disappeared for a few days, then reappeared with his short hair back to its natural color. He was expelled the next year when he was found smoking by a senior prefect, who turned him in with “an excess of the ‘dorm trooper’ mentality instilled” by the school. “He just disappeared,” one classmate tells the reporter.
“Sudden disappearances at Cranbrook were not unheard of,” the story continues, making the school sound like Chile and Argentina in the late 1970s. After Cranbrook expelled Lauber, he came out as gay, and led the life of a “vagabond,” roaming the world and taking the sorts of jobs not expected of Cranbrook alumni. (The piece says that after “an extreme fit of temper” he checked into the Menninger Clinic in Kansas, but does not say when this happened, what caused it, what he was treated for, or if the treatment helped.) Meanwhile, Romney graduated in June 1965, in a ceremony at which his father delivered the keynote address, and after which the class sang the school song, “Forty Years On.” And it was just forty years after that, in 2005, that Mitt Romney, a millionaire and a governor and about to embark on his first run for president, accepted the academy’s Distinguished Alumni Award. And the year before that? John Lauber died in a Seattle hospital, unremarked on by Cranbrook, unknown and unsung.
Johnson did a crude thing if he bullied Kennedy into killing an animal, but the “emotional truth” told by Manchester is that Johnson and Texas killed Kennedy. Mitt Romney did a cruel and crude thing if he cut off the hair of John Lauber, but the “emotional truth” told by the Washington Post is that he and Cranbrook hunted down Lauber because he was a non-conformist and/or homosexual, and ruined his life. But nothing else in Romney’s life suggests he’s a sadist or homophobe; rather the opposite.
Michael Barone, whose own time at Cranbrook overlapped with Romney’s, remembers a school tolerant of eccentricity, respectful of intellect, and open to diversity. He also says the interpretation of the event is “anachronistic,” as long hair at the time was connected to the Beach Boys and the Beatles, to surfers and rock stars, not sexual preference. “Hair length was a big issue in the 1960s,” he tells us. “Men of the World War II generation, who had memories of military short haircuts, took umbrage when teenagers let their hair grow, and fathers would badger their sons to get haircuts.” Lauber didn’t become a millionaire and a governor, but neither do most of us. He did study dressage in England, tour with the Royal Lipizzaner Stallions, work as a chef on a freighter, and later as a cook for civilian contractors in war-torn Bosnia and Iraq. Iraq and Bosnia were no places for wusses, and the job that he did there was surely important. No wonder his sisters said that the facts in the story were not correct and that “If he were still alive today, he would be furious.”
Nonetheless, the Post’s account is a donation-in-kind to the campaign of Obama, allowing the Democrats to weave together the newly discovered concern over bullying to the less newly discovered cause of gay equality and present them in a neat bundle to concerned suburban women, or some other niche group du jour. That the story exactly coincided with the president’s “evolution” on gay marriage set it up even better, though in retrospect this might not have been such a wholly good thing. People have noted that most of the witnesses to the rape of the locks seem to be Democrats, but here, too, opinions diverge. According to ABC News, Phillip Maxwell, one of the four boys who helped pin down Lauber, found the whole thing horrific: “When you see somebody who is simply different taken down that way . . . and you see that look in their eye, you never forget it,” he said. His brother Peter, who was also at Cranbrook, says that his brother likes to “expound” upon matters, and finds this reaction extreme. Romney “was the kind of guy who would go out of his way to help people, and for him to be characterized as a bully would be the farthest thing from the truth.” He said to his brother, “Come on, what really was it?” and his brother replied, “The kid had long hair, and it wasn’t really what people were into at that time.” Peter responded, “Let’s look at it that way. Let’s not make it into a national media event for an incident that happened in 1965.”
The victim’s survivors would seem to agree: “The family of John Lauber is releasing a statement saying the portrait of John is factually incorrect and we are aggrieved that he would be used to further a political agenda” has been their last word on it all.
The problem with “emotional truth” is that emotions vary from person to person, and are frequently colored by politics. Perhaps newspapers should simply stay with the facts.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.