05/14/2012 01:56 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2012

Why Bully-Gate Matters

Here's an odd juxtaposition: as I returned home from the movie Bully, I read the Washington Post story about Mitt Romney's high school bullying. There are some who say this 37-year-old story is irrelevant, but there are at least three reasons why that's not so, and why bully-gate does, indeed, matter.

First, as they say in politics, the cover-up is worse than the crime. Last week, Romney said that he just doesn't remember bullying John Lauber back in high school, but that he apologizes for any "pranks" he may have pulled. This is outrageous. Probably it's yet another Romney evasion of the truth. But if it isn't, that's even worse. He held down an effeminate high school student, forcibly cut his bleach-blond hair, and doesn't even remember it?

If there's one thing Bully the movie reinforced for me, it's that "pranks" are trivial only for the pranker -- that is, for the bully. As someone who was bullied myself, I remember dozens of separate incidents of intimidation, low-level violence, and threats. If this one was so insignificant for Romney, well, that just shows us how callous he was -- or perhaps, how many incidents there were.

I suspect Romney does, like his five classmates, remember this incident, but came up with the lawyerly evasion of "I don't recall" to try to soften the blow. For anyone who's seen Bully or been bullied themselves, this blithe evasion has had the opposite effect.

Second, there is the act itself. Of course, we all do stupid things as teenagers (and beyond) -- but which stupid things we do is relevant in assessing character. Romney's youthful misstep was one of cruelty and callousness. A lot of his contemporary policies seem that way, too. Romney is a plutocrat who enjoys firing people, and who, yes, strapped his dog onto the roof of his car -- which his wife Ann recently said the dog "loved." This is a pattern -- one of cruelty and disregard for the well-being of others. And, as Paul Begala recently noted, of abuse of power. The boy was a prince, the man is a prince, and he seems not to give a damn about the paupers.

Finally, there is the clear linkage that Romney's bullying draws between the meanness of the bully and the meanness of the latter-day conservative. Life is unfair, they say. Sometimes people are just losers. If they can't afford health care, let them die. And if they can't stick up for themselves, well, they deserve to get beaten up.

This is the ethos both of the bully and the bull-market ideologue: the weak, the poor, and the wretched probably deserve it. And in any case, better to let them suffer than to risk too much compassion or care-taking. I've got mine, and too bad that you don't.

Some have juxtaposed bully-gate with President Obama's compassionate statement in support of same-sex marriage -- notable not just for its substance but, as I remarked here a few days ago, for its style as well, which demonstrates introspection, thoughtfulness, and empathy. That is an apt juxtaposition, but I think the one I happened to experience is even more telling. Bully is a film that everyone should see. It shines a light on some of the darkest corners of human nature. And unintentionally, it seems, on the Republican candidate for president.