WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney apologized Thursday for "stupid" high school pranks that he said may have gone too far and moved quickly to stamp out any notion that he bullied schoolmates because they were gay. His swift response reflected the Republican presidential candidate's recognition that his record on gay rights is under heightened scrutiny after President Obama's embrace of gay marriage.
One day after gay rights moved to the center of the presidential race with Obama's announcement on same-sex marriage, a Washington Post report about Romney's high school escapades nearly 50 years ago added a personal dimension to Democrats' contention that he's out of step on the sensitive topic.
The newspaper reported that in one case, Romney and several schoolmates held down classmate John Lauber and cut off his bleach-blond hair after seeking him out in his dorm room at their boarding school in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, Mich. The Post said that Lauber was "perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality" and that he screamed for help as Romney held him down. The paper recounted another incident in which Romney shouted "Atta girl" to a different student at the all-boys' school who, years later, came out as gay.
"I participated in a lot of high jinks and pranks during high school, and some may have gone too far. And for that I apologize," Romney told Fox News' Brian Kilmeade during a hastily arranged radio interview. Romney said he did not remember the Lauber incident but did not dispute that it happened. He stressed that he did not know either student was gay. Lauber died in 2004.
Romney had begun the day by treading softly on Obama's historic embrace of same-sex marriage, which seems likely to fire up liberal and conservative activists alike. He quietly restated his opposition to legalizing such marriages, but his campaign turned its full attention to energy, the economy, and other issues.
Then the boarding-school story was posted online and Romney moved quickly to counter any suggestion that he had targeted students because they were gay.
"That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case," he said, adding that the students involved "didn't come out of the closet until years later."
According to the Post account, Romney was upset about how Lauber wore his bleach-blond hair hanging in his eyes.
"He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him!" Romney reportedly told Matthew Friedemann, a close Romney friend and one of five classmates who recalled the incident for the Post. According to the report, a few days later, Romney led a group of boys out of his dorm room at Cranbrook School and into Lauber's, where the group tackled him and held him down. Romney cut his hair with scissors as a teary-eyed Lauber screamed for help, according to the account.
"If there was anything I said that was offensive to someone, I certainly am sorry about that," Romney said, adding that "there was no harm intended." Romney's campaign has previously highlighted the candidate's reputation as a high school prankster in an attempt to humanize him.
In a second interview Thursday, Romney laid out what he said was his long-held position on gay rights: While opposed to gay marriage, he said states should be allowed to grant various domestic-partnership rights to same-sex couples, including the right to adopt children.
"States could have their own decisions with regards to the domestic-partnership rights," Romney told Fox News. "But my preference would be to have a national standard for marriage, and that marriage would be defined as being between a man and a woman."