On Thursday morning, the Washington Post‘s Jason Horowitz dropped a bomb: As an 18-year-old student at an elite Michigan prep school, Mitt Romney led a band of classmates in an assault on student they thought was gay, John Lauber, because he was offended by the student’s hairstyle. Romney’s crew pushed Lauber to the ground, and as “Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors,” Horowitz reports. Romney avoided punishment; Lauber was later expelled for smoking a cigarette. Although five students involved in the incident corroborated the story and reflected on how much, even today, the incident pains them, the Romney campaign told Horowitz the candidate couldn’t recall any such incident.
Now Romney has reversed course and issued an apology: “Back in high school I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended by that I apologize,” he told reporters. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s.”
Did I say “apology”? I meant “total dodge that absolves him of any responsibility for what happened, and any genuine regret”—what CNN political analyst William Schneider once coined the “past exonerative.” By inserting “if,” Romney leaves open the possibility that, in fact, no one was hurt or offended by the assault. Maybe the tears were tears of joy? It’s also curious that Romney, who purportedly didn’t remember the incident, now remembers the incident so well he’s able to refute the accounts of his classmates, who explicitly noted that the Lauber’s perceived homosexuality had made him a target. As Conn Carroll of the conservative Washington Examiner puts it, “Romney bullying apology [is] unacceptable. It is non-responsive. Only guarantees more questioning. Does he remember incident or not?”
It’s not an apology if you never really say you’re sorry.