In it for the Money: Mitt and Me

"That dude either has a huge ass or a terrible tailor."

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month. 

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Mitt Romney and I went to the same high school – three decades apart. This would be immaterial, except the Washington Post just published a fascinating 5,500-word remembrance of Mitt Romney’s hijinks at Cranbrook, a high-pressure prep school in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

I attended this same school in the 1990s; it’s an architectural gem, the staff is excellent, the program an academic crucible. Later, as a University of Michigan student, I shared a broken-down house with three fellow Cranbrook alums. One was in a sociology class, and we were delighted when he revealed that his textbook listed Cranbrook as “one of the last vestiges of American aristocracy.”

Because Mitt and I attended Cranbrook exactly 30 years apart, we ended up standing back-to-back on a balmy June evening in 2005 – the same year Mitt received the school’s 2005 Distinguished Alumni Award. The governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and I stood together at the lip of a deep, inset fountain, which gurgled contentedly, almost as though it was whispering ♪♫Daaaaave, I would be an excellent place for a GOP splaaashdown!♫

A Question of Character

Jason Horowitz’s May 10 Washington Post piece is long, detailed, and narrative, but so effectively pulls its punches that (apart from the title, which I imagine was written by an editor) it has no express argument at all.

Yet the piece has elicited a lot of reaction. Clearly, it shows that Mitt is a homophobe! Clearly, it shows he’s a bully! Clearly, it shows he’s a friend of the Jews! Clearly, it shows he’s a classist prick! A meretricious lout! A great practical joker! A disrespectful, bloodthirsty monster! Clearly, it’s totally not germane because no one would pick a president based on what that person was doing in high school!

Clearly it’s not clear what we’re supposed to take from this – but that seems fine, because as of last Friday everyone in the old media and on its coat-tails was perfectly happy to take the dark glass Horowitz delivered us and scry it for meaning.

But, as a Cranbrook alum, and as someone who was bullied [1] in those pleasant pastures among those dark Satanic Mills [2], and as someone who was a Jew at Cranbrook during what might have been the queerest time in history to be a Jew at Cranbrook, what interested me most were the Facebooked reactions of my old classmates. And their thoughts eerily matched mine: That doesn’t really sound so different from what things were like when we were there.

Then, of course, there’s this Wall Street Journal blog post penned by an alum who was gay at Cranbrook a decade after I’d graduated. His concluding sentence: “Call us elitist, or removed, or privileged, but don’t say that Cranbrook hasn’t changed.”

The Promised Land

What initially struck me about Horowitz’s article wasn’t the description of Cranbrook – which was so familiar that it didn’t even strike me that it should have changed more over the 30 most tumultuous years of the 20th Century – but a simple mistake.

In explaining the division between boarding students and “day boys” (who were “day students” by the time I came to Cranbrook, because the two campuses had largely been integrated), Horowitz notes: “Students within the limits of Detroit’s 8 Mile Road had the option to attend the school without boarding.”

This comes just a bit after Horowitz takes pains to highlight Cranbrook’s “significant Jewish contingent” at that time. He even mentions that Romney dated Mary Fisher – the stepdaughter to Max Fisher, who was certainly one of the most notable Jewish-American philanthropists of the 20th Century – and notes how “studiously nondenominational” the school was.

But Horowitz has gotten this admissions policy exactly wrong: By the time Mitt was enrolled, Cranbrook had long taken measures to limit Jewish enrollment (as is both attested and documented in the biography of Cranbrook’s most politically significant alum during my tenure, Daniel Ellsberg). One measure was to mandate that students living south of 8 Mile – i.e., within Detroit city limits – must attend as boarding students (at a much higher tuition rate). [3]

Until the 1970s, the vast bulk of Southeast Michigan’s Jewish population – including my own father (not a Cranbrook alum) – lived within Detroit, largely along its northern edge. When I was a student this policy was characterized as anti-Semitic, not racist, although it obviously affected a huge African-American population. Make of that what you will. [4]

But, I think most tellingly, this was a policy that teachers told us about in the 1990s. I know this will sound absurd – I am, after all, talking about one of the last vestiges of the aristocracy – but when I was a student the school was admirably ahead of the curve on multiculturalism, with classes with names like “Diversity?” and teachers who didn’t play with kid gloves. Our privilege – by dint of socio-economic class, race, gender, creed – was not something we were permitted to blithely ignore. Classroom debates asked us to take a long look at how it was we ended up where we were, and what we might owe the rest of the world as a consequence. The kid gloves were left at the school room door. Our folks got their money’s worth – because this is what they were paying for.

The entire point of bringing up these policies – which, to my understanding, remained in place until the early ’70s – was to discuss how institutions change over time. Cranbrook was – and evidently remains – a smart place, and a complicated place. It’s a classic example of how institutions – real institutions with real traditions, institutions like governments – make their progress: sidling and inch-long, often mind-numbingly slowly, but bending toward justice.

The Rich Are Different

The implied argument in Horowitz’s Washington Post parable – the argument being made explicit by us chattering hordes now – is that there is something to be said about Mitt here, something that can be distilled from these facts about his boyhood cruelty, about an environment that was intense and rarified.

As the caretakers of a half-way decent democracy, this should probably disturb us. The last few election cycles have seen our national discourse stumble into the logical endgame of identity politics. We’ve ceased even to bother asking how a candidate’s identity might influence his or her performance of duties, and instead seem content to ask how his or her identity influences our guts. With John F. Kennedy (a Catholic), or with Joe Lieberman (a practicing Orthodox Jew), our questions about their strange Otherness was at least couched in functional concerns: How might their identities impact their performance of the duties of their offices?

But in the Birther controversy (or lack of one for John McCain, who was born in Panama) and with questions of Romney’s socioeconomic class and upbringing and faith [5], no one seems to be bothering to ask: “Does this obstruct the performance of his function?” It all seems to just swirl around: “Is he like me? Is he too different? Are the rich too different from me? Did He who made the lamb make thee?”

After all, how could your average American possibly expect to see his or her interests effectively addressed by a slightly right-of-center moderate millionaire with an elite education, a pragmatic attitude towards universal medical coverage, and several New York Times bestsellers in bookstores? Are we seriously worried that Mitt Romney might get elected in 2012, or that we already elected him in 2008?

It’s one thing to not want a Jew VP because you fear the President might drop dead during Yom Kippur and there’d be no one to pilot the ship of state until sundown. It’s another not to want a Jew VP because you aren’t a Jew, and Jews are different, and you aren’t comfortable with that, and what if he decided he didn’t want a White House Christmas tree and oh good God won’t someone think of the children!!!

Whatever nebulous feelings we might now have about Mitt and Mormonism and bullies and boys bleaching their hair and growing it long, Horowitz’s Washington Post article has at least brought us one concrete fact: Mitt Romney is an enthusiastic prankster. And that, my Dear Readers, my Trusted Interlocutors, brings us back to me and Mitt standing at our high school reunion in 2005.

We stood together once, Mitt and I. It was June and it was warm and it was breezy and the sun was westering, and there were a lot of other folks there. Because Cranbrook is small, they hold their reunions mod 5, which means that everyone who graduated in 1930, ’35, ’40, ’45 . . . ’65 (like Mitt), ’70 . . . ’95 (like me) share one big reunion. The next year it’s the 1931, ’36, ’41, ’46 . . . etc. kids who reunite, and so on. So Mitt and I shared a reunion.

I was standing in Cranbrook’s celebrated Quadrangle next to that lovely fountain drinking a beer and talking to General Ambrose Burnside (not his real name). The general looked past my shoulder and said, “Holy shit, that’s Mitt Romney!” I turned, and not five feet away, three-quarters turned away from me, was the governor of Massachusetts. He wasn’t flanked by security, or by his wife, or by anyone in particular. He was in an Izod and chinos, smiling and chatting to a young African-American man who, judging from his blue-and-green club tie and navy blazer, was one of the students there to serve the alums. The kid was smiling, hands clasped in front of his belt, asking something complicated. Mitt was smiling back and nodding and squinting a little in the sun.

“Who?” I asked.

“The governor of Massachusetts, asshole,” and then it clicked: Less than a year earlier Romney had backed same-sex civil unions. A few months later some skinny, crazy-named black guy from Chicago had slam-dunked at the DNC Convention. America seemed to be bending toward justice.

“Oh. That Mitt Romney.” I looked again, “That dude either has a huge ass or a terrible tailor,” I said. And it drunkenly dawned on me: I will almost certainly regret not pushing this guy into the fountain. At the very least, I will have assaulted the governor of the Hated Commonwealth of Massachusetts [6].

But those fountains steps can be slick, and I worried he’d brain himself on the way down, and then I’d be the man who murdered the governor of Hated Massachusetts. And I didn’t like imagining the aftermath: Some middle-aged dude, ass-down in a big fountain, the water pouring over him, shocked and ashamed, and stuck in wet shoes for the rest of the evening. I didn’t like the idea of how triumphantly malicious I’d feel, about how I’d screw up that club-tie kid’s chance to talk to Someone Really Goddamn Important, when he ought to be clearing cocktail glasses off of linen tablecloths.

And then General Burnside said, “You want another beer?” and I did.

And we left.

But, maybe, if I’d seen the Washington Post article back then, I would have rushed Mitt.

After all, of all the guys who want to have their finger on the national trigger, we now know that Mitt’s the one who can take a joke.


[1] I hate saying that. The cognitive dissonance I experience typing the words “I was bullied in school” is so great that I’m almost overwhelmingly tempted to delete the following 600 words (which, agreed, might well be a blessing for both the reader and me).

On the one hand, the term “bullied” carried nowhere near the weight then – either for kids or for adults in education –  that it does now. Back then it never dawned on me to take my problems to a teacher or administrator. I simply could not fathom what they might do about any of it. Consequently, I’m a big, unstunted grown-up man now, and feel like “it’s all water under the bridge” and “didn’t mean anything.” There are kids – even today, and certainly in the 1960s, as the Washington Post article demonstrates – who suffer a great deal more at the hands of their peers than I ever did. What I experienced was mild by comparison. Or, at least, that’s what I want to say. Hey, I’m fine! “It gets better,” kids!

On the other hand – which I’ll just arbitrarily call my left hand, the one that clicks and grinds when I rotate my wrist even now, 20-plus years on – I was bullied right into a broken arm, and bullied beyond. I was bullied right up until I stopped giving a fuck about what it should mean to be “one of the guys” – which happened to coincide with my classes largely switching to being mixed-gender. (When I attended Cranbrook the middle schools were entirely gender segregated, as were a good portion of the freshman and sophomore humanities classes. Having seen firsthand – both as a student and a teacher – how young American men railroad young American women in classroom discussions, I have trouble beefing with this policy. A lot of the girls really liked it. But if you’re an effete, loud-mouthed, heterosexual fat-boy who has trouble socializing with males, single-sex education is pretty hellish.)

So yeah, I also got pushed and shoved and snotted on and tripped and my hair surreptitiously clipped and that broken wrist and . . . well, that’s as honest as I’m going to be about it. The things that were most hurtful will sound so mild in the telling that maybe it’s better to leave it there. In 1999, when coverage of the University of Michigan’s Naked Mile was interrupted to report on something awful that had happened in a little Denver town with the floral name of Columbine – and in the following years, as we started zero-tolerancing all sorts of bullied kids out of our public schools – I understood those boys, all those terrible boys who made threats, who packed heat, who lashed out. I understood because I remembered sitting on the benches that line Cranbrook’s beautiful, wood-paneled halls with my buddy General Ambrose Burnside (not his real name), and talking about how we might stalk through the Quadrangle, who we’d kill, in what order, and how. But not why. Why was pretty self-evident.

And, just in case it’s unclear why I never finally cracked and curled finger ’round trigger: It was because the classes were small, and regardless of how one’s peers felt and what they said, the teachers valued a loud-mouthed “fat faggot fuckup” who would try answering any question, no matter how obtuse. If my experience is any indication, then a simply mind-boggling number of young lives are saved each year by well-timed – and likely entirely unknowing – chuckles, back-pats, and tossed off attaboys from over-worked, under-compensated teachers.

Anyway, on the up-side, I was a day student, so I didn’t have to share communal showers with those pricks.

Incidentally, since it may begin to seem important, the bulk of folks who picked on me were my fellow Jews – but that’s really just selection bias: The vast bulk of my peers were Jews.

[2] Yeah, okay, I’ll own that this flourish seems totally excessive. The school song I was most familiar with at Cranbrook was not “Forty Years On” – which I vaguely remember singing at graduation – but “Jerusalem,” which is based on a poem by William Blake and, for a Jew, is probably the most fascinating possible thing to sing in a “nondenominational” church during your “nondenominational” graduation ceremony from a school founded to provide that church with choir boys, situated in the richest community in America. “Satanic mills” indeed.

[3] As an aside, I can see how Horowitz cocked this up. A few grafs earlier he quotes a Romney classmate who says he “commuted from east Detroit” [sic] each day. Unless Horowitz is from the Metro area and older than mid-thirties, he has no reason to know that the speaker is almost certainly not talking about the section of Detroit east of Woodward Avenue – which is usually called the “Eastside” – but rather likely meant “East Detroit,” an entirely separate community that’s bordered on its southern edge by 8 Mile, and thus entirely outside, and north, of Detroit. In 1992 East Detroit changed its name to “Eastpointe” for marketing reasons. But, if you came of age even as late at the ’80s, you likely still think of this as East Detroit. See, for example, this Eminem track – with apologies to women, the Beastie Boys, Kid Rock, and the Loch Ness Monster – around the 2 min 6 sec mark.

[4] I’d hate to give the impression that, by the 1990s, there was any hint of institutional racism or anti-Semitism lingering at the school. Far from it, the institution itself sought to be as broad and inclusive as possible, in terms of teaching staff and student body, and was certainly far more diverse than the neighboring public schools (esp. in terms of nationality). It was also overrun with Jews like me. By the time I graduated, the Jewish High Holidays were also school holidays, purely for pragmatic reasons: It was impossible to get anything done on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because a quarter of the school was gone. I’m not arguing that 1990s Cranbrook was a Rainbow Coalition Utopia, I just want folks to have an accurate picture of what the aristocracy was in the 1990s.

[5] I knew exactly one Mormon who attended Cranbrook in the seven years I was there – which certainly makes Mormons the most extreme minority at Cranbrook, far outnumbered by Jews, Hindus, Muslims, African-Americans, homosexuals, Latinos, Canadians, lady hockey players, etc. He was a nice – if, upon reflection, somewhat odd – kid who was widely accepted, and happened to be either a nephew or cousin to Jim Davis (of “Garfield” fame). Nonetheless, I’d be dishonest if I said anything other than this: “His Mormon cosmology was mercilessly mocked as ludicrous, primarily by the Jews I knew and spent the most time with.” Before you judge us too harshly, please bear in mind that we were total and unforgivable assholes.

[6] At that time I had a beef with Middlesex County, Mass, as a consequence of a snow-emergency/parking/towing/plastic-Santa situation that had gotten somewhat out of control. There’s no sense pointing fingers now, but a bench warrant may have been issued. I have subsequently avoided the Commonwealth ever since.

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  1. By Rod Johnson
    May 16, 2012 at 9:42 am | permalink

    Thanks for this. It’s great to see Cranbrook through more relatable eyes. I went to Roeper, sometime between the time Mitt and you were at Cranbrook, and there was a lot of transferring back and forth between the two schools (and Country Day). I used to play soccer in a mini-league of Roeper, Cranbrook, Country Day and what was then called GPUS (“guppus”), now I think University-Liggett. Roeper students were always the odd ones out, being geekier, goofier[1], poorer (some of us) and slightly more ethnically diverse than the others, but for the most part we were treated well. The exception being, of course, Cranbrook. I always hated playing there because, not to put too fine a point on it, the students there were pricks. When I read the WaPo story, I was like, oh yeah, that guy.

    [1] For instance, my friend Michael Dinwiddie, now a well-known playwright and the first gay black person I ever knew, used to, whenever he got the ball, run down the field screaming “UNGAWA!!” At prep schools this was not the done thing.

  2. By Barbara
    May 16, 2012 at 10:14 am | permalink

    As always, well done.

  3. May 16, 2012 at 12:21 pm | permalink

    “It’s a classic example of how institutions – real institutions with real traditions, INSTITUTIONS LIKE GOVERNMENTS (my caps) – make their progress: sidling and inch-long, often mind-numbingly slowly, but bending toward justice.”

    Bless you. You betray your optimistic, youthful soul with this line, David Eric… A funny, compelling & pithy piece: I’ll do my part to bring it viral. Thanks!

  4. By Jeremy Lopatin
    May 17, 2012 at 7:15 am | permalink

    Excellent piece, Dave-o! Were it not for that institution, I’d be short one of my dearest friends. CK ’95.

  5. By Milt
    May 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm | permalink

    Kudos on this piece, Dave-o! Though it *is* regrattable that you left the then-gov high and dry. Retrospect is a b****, isn’t it?

    Also totally agree on the bullying thing. I think it’s good that it’s changed and that adults and institutions take it so seriously now, but that means the word has taken on a whole new subtext. When I was a lad and a friend was held down in a locker room and defecated upon, or when a group of older boys surrounded me and beat and kicked me until they were tired, or when that kid from DeLaSalle was stomped to death in the early 90′s, so many people seemed to say “boys will be boys”. It meant that there was no hope, no adults to tell and no reason to do anything but start carrying around heavy metal objects that might be used as weapons in a pinch.

    It at least seems as if times are better, but then I haven’t been in school for a few decades now. Plus these days I’m a 6ft tall, 210lb guy. So maybe it just seems better from where I sit. I can’t say for sure.