Rupert Cornwell: Gay rights sharpen the presidential divide

Out of America: As Obama backs same-sex marriage, allegations about Romney's schooldays will do little to win over moderate voters

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No man should be held to account for ever for a mistake made many decades ago. So hands up if you ever did something really bad at school – and that question applies even if you're running for president of the United States. We know, by his own admission, that Barack Obama was no saint, trying drink and drugs, and wasting too much time on basketball. But Mitt Romney, the teetotal Mormon, he of the chiselled countenance and picture-perfect family, whose greatest known sin to date was strapping Seamus, the family dog, to the roof of the car en route to a holiday in Canada? Surely not.

Well, it transpires that his high school days were not without blemish. If a meticulous exposé in The Washington Post is correct, things may have gone too far at the prestigious Cranbrook School in wealthy suburban Detroit.

Back in the spring of 1965, according to some of Romney's contemporaries, he led a group who cornered a classmate, John Lauber, held him down and cut off his bleached blond hair. Romney, it is said, wielded the scissors, as a terrified Lauber screamed for help. Lauber was a bit of a rebel. He was also presumed to be homosexual (which, in fact, he was). He died of cancer in 2004.

If, as I did, you attended an exclusive English boarding school of that era, the episode sounds all too believable. We call them public schools; in the US, they are known as prep schools (in preparation for university). Cranbrook, by all accounts, seems to have been even more English than the English: classes were called forms and the school had its own song called "Forty Years On". There were absurd rituals, and a tolerance of boys being boys – including when they bullied "sissies".

Unfortunately for Romney, the incident surfaced a single news cycle after the erstwhile mixed-up President caused a sensation by announcing his support for same-sex marriage. The contrast may be facile, but it was unmissable: gay-friendly Barack versus one-time gay basher Mitt, another stark line drawn between the Democratic President and his Republican challenger.

Romney, it should be said, didn't help matters with his typically clumsy handling of the affair. He could have admitted it, pointed out that the incident happened nearly half a century ago, and that would have been that. Instead he equivocated. "I can't remember," he said (although four of his classmates, interviewed by The Post, remembered very well). But, he added: "I don't argue with the reports, I participated in some high jinks. Some may have gone too far. If I said something offensive, I apologise."

Then Romney, equally typically, muddied the waters further by insisting that he supported the right of gay couples to adopt children – even though he came out last week against not only marriage for same-sex partners, but also civil unions. Where exactly does he stand? It was the same old Romney: in one breath trying to reassure conservatives; in the next, trying not to upset the moderates who are so important in November.

I have no idea how Obama's support for gay marriage and the disclosures about a long-ago Mitt Romney will play out politically. Perhaps they will change nothing, other than to convince liberals and social conservatives of the rightness of their causes. But there are plenty of gay and libertarian Republicans, and the party is divided on same-sex marriage. Right now, Romney is on the defensive, trying to change the subject back to his strongest suit: the economy. Probably, he need wait no longer than another lousy set of job figures.

But both episodes underline how much America's social climate has changed. About the time Romney was taking his scissors to John Lauber's hair, the marches at Selma, Alabama, were marking segregation's last stand, as an appalled nation watched non-violent demonstrators savagely beaten by state police. The Supreme Court ruling, of Loving vs Virginia, banning state anti-miscegenation laws, was still two years off. Today we have a president born of an inter-racial union.

In those days, too, homosexuality dared not speak its name. Gays were called "queers". Not until 1962 did Illinois become the first US state to decriminalise sodomy. Only in 1969 was the modern gay rights movement born, with the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York.

Back then, bullying gays in schools and elsewhere raised few eyebrows; today, it is classified as a hate crime, or "bias intimidation", as a case this year labelled it. As for gay marriage, a narrow majority is now in favour.

And like the times, people change. Being a jerk at school doesn't mean you're a jerk for life. But one constant remains – the insatiable appetite of Americans to learn everything they can of those who aspire to lead them. Presidential elections are about personalities at least as much as policies. Who exactly are these two guys? Which one do I like most? History's lesson is that the guy voters prefer as a person usually wins.

With Romney, the political chameleon, the problem is acute. Who precisely is he? Is he the "severely conservative" child of privilege and wealth, incapable of understanding the problems of less fortunate people, or the pragmatic, competent and fair-minded governor who gave Massachusetts near-universal health care? For some, the alleged bullying episode will provide a fragment of the answer.

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