A day after President Obama endorsed the concept of same-sex marriage (but, notably, no policies to legalize it), the Washington Post reported that, as a teenager in boarding school, Mitt Romney once forcibly cut the longish hair of a fellow classmate who was “presumed” to be gay. The story has since been found to have a number of problems: Two sisters of the alleged victim (who died several years ago) claim the depiction of him is “factually incorrect,” and one says she had never heard of the incident (which, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen); one of the Romney classmates quoted about the incident now says he didn’t actually witness it.
As if to confirm that juvenile behavior by juveniles is not a partisan issue, a blogger soon posted an excerpt from Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” in which he describes behaving rudely toward an unpopular female classmate. (The posted excerpts don’t refer to his age at the time, but the reference by Obama to her being in “my grade” suggests to me that he was in elementary or middle school.)
But the overriding question is: Does anyone care what presidential candidates did as youths?
Maybe one’s college years are relevant. Or maybe, since voters in 1992 looked past Bill Clinton’s youthful use of marijuana and avoidance of the military draft, those years aren’t all that important.
Maybe what matters is not so much the age of an incident, but its relevance to their fitness for office. So, maybe long-discontinued substance abuse is off-limits, given the track record of the past three presidents — Clinton (marijuana), George W. Bush (alcohol; there are also unsubstantiated allegations that he used cocaine) and Obama (marijuana, cocaine) — but other actions, even as a youth, might be fair game.
This is not a one-time dilemma: In the past weeks, we’ve seen partisans trade barbs about how Romney treated the family dog on vacations decades ago — only for some, in response, to point out that Obama, again in “Dreams From My Father,” admitted to eating dog as a youth in Indonesia.
As a journalist, I’m inclined to think the press should report what it finds and let voters decide what’s important. But, given the blowback for some of the things that have been reported, I’m genuinely interested in what readers think about the boundaries of vetting. So here’s this week’s Poll Position question: How far back should the press look in vetting presidential candidates? Answer in the nearby poll and the comments thread below.
– By Kyle Wingfield