Mitt Romney’s prep-school days have been under intense scrutiny this week after a report detailed an incident where he held down a classmate and cut his hair. But instead of dismissing the incident as long-ago “hijinks,” the former Massachusetts governor should use the attention as an opportunity to lead on the issue of bullying, said Lee Hirsch, the director of “Bully”, a new documentary that focuses on bullying in U.S. schools.
“What I see is an opportunity for Mitt Romney to lead and really be an advocate for decreasing bullying,” Hirsch told TPM in a phone interview Friday. “It’s sad to hear what occurred many years ago characterized as ‘pranks’ and ‘horsing around.’ We’re no longer conformable with the notion of describing bullying as ‘kids will be kids.’ This was a presidential moment, and this should be a teachable moment for him.”
The Washington Post’s report this week detailed Romney’s behavior in high school. The likely Republican presidential nominee reportedly went after a boy his classmates suspected was gay and cut his hair as the boy screamed for help. Romney has said he doesn’t remember the incident, but he doesn’t deny the report.
“Back in high school I did some dumb things and if anybody was hurt by that or offended by that, I apologize,” Romney told FOX radio host Brian Kilmeade on Thursday, soon after the story broke.
Hirsch — who said he was bullied as a kid — stressed that his interest in combating bullying is not political. Both liberals and conservatives have praised the film, including Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee, he said.
“We are in the tipping point, and that’s why it’s so critical that more and more people with influence and prominence speak out, and do so in courageous ways,” he said.
The film is making the rounds, too. It is currently in more than 250 screens across the U.S. He recently screened it at the White House and for a few dozen members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Hirsch said he would like to see legislation that addresses bullying, but his focus is on reaching people at the community level.
“A legislative victory could be realized, but first we have to move hearts and minds,” he said.
An Obama supporter, Hirsch donated his time to make a series of ads for the 2008 campaign. Prominent Obama donator Harvey Weinstein is distributing the film. But Hirsch stressed that he didn’t want to take a stand against Romney. “I would love to engage Mitt Romney on how powerful his voice could be in this moment.” That said, he would buy Romney a ticket to see “Bully.”
Hirsch said Romney’s reported behavior sounds like it would constitute bullying. “At its core, bullying is something that’s done that’s harmful, that is repetitive and where there’s an imbalance of power.”
The film itself garnered some controversy after the Motion Picture Association of America gave it an R rating. Hirsch negotiated a PG-13 rating so that younger audiences affected directly by its subject matter could see the movie. The MPAA had an issue with the film’s language in the bullying scenes. “That language carries the cruelty,” Hirsch said. “If you cut it out, we further minimize the experience that kids who are bullied have.”
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com