Something shocking happened on Friday night on NPR's All Things Considered. "Conservative" pundit David Brooks took the anti-Washington Post position on the Mitt Romney high-school "scoop." Obviously, Post columnist E.J. Dionne stuck with his paper and his liberal guns, insisting more and more stories just like this are going to come out, whether that's a threat or a promise.
Anchor Melissa Block would not use the word "alleged" to describe the Post story which "details incidents of bullying by Romney when he was a senior at the tony Cranbrook boys prep school in Michigan. Five former classmates spoke about an incident when Romney led a posse that targeted a student with long bleached-blond hair, tackled him, pinned him to the ground and hacked off his hair as he cried and screamed for help." Brooks cried it was illegitimate "gotcha" journalism:
BLOCK: Now, David, the boy who was targeted later came out as gay. His family has said in a statement they are aggrieved that he would be used to further a political agenda. [Ahem, and they said the story was incorrect!] But some of his former classmates say they still feel haunted by what they did. Do you think this story is fair game? Does this incident from 1965 tell us anything about candidate Romney in 2012?
BROOKS: No. You know, it was a cruel episode, but it happened when he was a teenager. There's no record of him doing anything like that. If you report around Mitt Romney these days, you're bombarded with stories of him showing compassion and concern. And so those are the stories that characterize his adult life, not sort of a gotcha story about something that happened in a high school.
So I don't think it's terribly meaningful. I think it's sort of gotcha journalism. It plays into the partisanship. It also plays into part of the stupidity of our politics, which is one stain on a person becomes infuriating for everybody. We are incredibly complicated, mottled creatures. We're all flawed and we're all bound to have something like this in our past. To go digging through high school seems to me as illegitimate.
Naturally, Dionne couldn't just disagree. He had to suggest (like Alan Simpson at the Hill-Thomas hearings) that there were more negative Romney stories coming over the transom that will reveal him as a rich kid with a mean streak:
BLOCK: And E.J., David Brooks calling this gotcha journalism. How do you see it?
DIONNE: I disagree with David. I agree we are all flawed, but beyond that I think that you're not talking here about something that somebody did as a teenager that was stupid or silly or crazy or fun-loving. This was downright mean. And I do think it raises questions that people are going to have in their heads about Romney. Why did he behave like this?
The New York Times writing about The Washington Post story, I thought had it right when they said the Romney campaign has to start worrying that a story like this, especially if there are other stories like this, will create the image of him as a rich kid with a mean streak, which is not exactly a category people like to vote for. And I got to say that kind of if I did anything that caused offense, blah, blah, blah kind of apology is just not very good form.
Before it seemed like too conservative a turn for Brooks, when they turned to Obama embracing gay marriage, Dionne offered homage to Brooks for being liberal on the gay-marriage issue early:
DIONNE: And if you'll forgive me for doing this, Melissa, I want to honor my friend David Brooks, who was a very early conservative proponent of gay marriage, and really made a powerful conservative case for this on the grounds that if you care about fidelity and commitment - which is actually a conservative thing to care about - you ought to be for gay marriage. And that's why opinion has moved so much in just eight years on this.
On his Friday night spot on the PBS NewsHour, Brooks praised Obama: "And so he hasn't been out front. Nonetheless, I think he has done the right thing. I think it will be remembered as a very important step for a civil rights victory."
And he repeated his line on the Post story: "You can attack Romney for being a flip-flopper and stuff like that. You cannot attack him for being a cruel bully. It is just not in his adult record.. So, to me, this was a piece of his life that happened when he was young, wildly out of context with his adult record, and blown out of proportion."
There was another surprise. Right after liberal pundit Mark Shields mocked Romney for wild inconsistency on gay issues, he dismissed the Post story as unimportant: "I do not think it has any legs as a political issue. And this is a man who has run twice for president, who has had opposition research done by Republican candidates and opponents of him who don't like him, who would use just about anything they could. And there is no pattern of his abusive behavior that I have ever heard of, save this one incident, which is ugly and offensive, and one that he would like to disremember."