When Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last

The ambivalence has always been right in front of us. We admire competitive folks who, through hard work or force of will, win it all – and we grin when they find a way to bend the rules. They don’t exactly break the rules – that would be cheating – be we smile when they find a way around them. It’s not holding if the line judge doesn’t see you.

These guys know how to play the game – they know how to dominate. They’re admired All-American winners, not whining losers. But of course at the same time we say we admire noble sportsmanship – you try hard, you somehow lose, but you sincerely congratulate the winner, and he graciously says you certainly put up a good fight and he admires you tremendously. Fine – that’s really nice – and many a father has told his son, after the kid messed up and lost the game, that it’s not whether you win or lose – it’s how you play the game. If you did your best you can hold your head high.

That’s the right thing to say, even if the father in question is seething in anger. Ah well, that massive anger can be displaced, usually against the officials, as any Little League umpire knows all too well. The kids aren’t the problem – they’re just having a good time – the intensely competitive parents are. It’s dangerous out there.

It’s an odd dance, and some folks just don’t dance – like the legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher, who just came out and said it – nice guys finish last. He wanted a team of winners, not a team of nice guys. But he did say he had been misquoted – “I never did say that you can’t be a nice guy and win. I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I’d trip her up.”

For him, sportsmanship was bullshit. You were there to win. After all, the equally legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is famous for saying “show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.” Life is competition – you win or you don’t – deal with it. And his legacy lives on with the New Orleans Saints in the matter of all the fines and the amazing suspensions for establishing a system of bonuses for severely injuring an opposing player, taking him out of the game, and a bigger bonus for ending his career. The league didn’t’ like that. But football is a game of dominance and intimidation, physical and psychological. And just where do you draw the line? Someone is going to get hurt – that’s the nature of the game, and sometimes one of its ends. And you can hear endless discussion of this on ESPN – sure, outlaw cheap shots, but don’t make the game nothing more than playing checkers, in pads. And then the guys on ESPN will discuss just what a cheap shot is, as opposed to simply a good hit, intimidating and decisive and the best part of the game – and they can never agree. This is as close as football, and ESPN, gets to existentialism.

But it’s not that arcane. You want your kid to be a winner – even if it’s just in Chess Club – but you don’t want him to be a bully. So he should be aggressive, and should dominate when he can. That would make you proud and that’s important in life – you don’t want the kid to get used to being pushed around all his life. You want to do what you can to assure his success and self-confidence. You tell him to stand up for himself and do what it takes to win. And if the kid is a girl you want the same thing of course. You want to develop a natural winner, an instinctive winner, with the right attitude, the person who, quite naturally, ends up on top – a winner.

But the problem is in what you say when you talk about what it takes to win. Do you quote Leo Durocher and Vince Lombardi? They were winners – they knew all about winning – but they seemed to be in favor of bullying.

How do you win? By any means necessary – just like in life. It’s fine to be a nice guy – grace and generosity and empathy are admirable. But they’re in another category of virtues. Winners may have that secondary cluster of virtues, by chance – but only by chance. And this makes the discussions you have with your kid about such things a tad dicey. Any discussion of abstract complementary but unrelated virtues, which a number of hyper-successful people have claimed are not complimentary but mutually exclusive, but which you say really aren’t, will bore your kid to tears. So he took that wimp’s lunch money and shoved him in his locker – and he didn’t get caught and his friends are in awe of him and now no one else picks on him anymore. Are you proud of his initiative and success or not? Isn’t this how the world works?

And now you have to have that ESPN discussion of what constitutes a cheap shot – and maybe the kid will quote Leo Durocher back to you. And just what had George Romney been saying to Mitt:

Mitt Romney returned from a three-week spring break in 1965 to resume his studies as a high school senior at the prestigious Cranbrook School. Back on the handsome campus, studded with Tudor brick buildings and manicured fields, he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

Romney’s campaign initially said this was true, but later in the day, laughing about the “prank” of course, Romney said he didn’t really remember this, but he really couldn’t deny it happened. Of course he couldn’t deny this, as the Washington Post had this thoroughly sourced:

The incident was recalled similarly by five students, who gave their accounts independently of one another. Four of them – Friedemann, now a dentist; Phillip Maxwell, a lawyer; Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor; and David Seed, a retired principal – spoke on the record. Another former student who witnessed the incident asked not to be identified. The men have differing political affiliations, although they mostly lean Democratic. Buford volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. Seed, a registered independent, has served as a Republican county chairman in Michigan. All of them said that politics in no way colored their recollections.

And there were other details:

“It happened very quickly, and to this day it troubles me,” said Buford, the school’s wrestling champion, who said he joined Romney in restraining Lauber. Buford subsequently apologized to Lauber, who was “terrified,” he said. “What a senseless, stupid, idiotic thing to do.”

“It was a hack job,” recalled Maxwell, a childhood friend of Romney who was in the dorm room when the incident occurred. “It was vicious.”

“He was just easy pickin’s,” said Friedemann, then the student prefect, or student authority leader of Stevens Hall, expressing remorse about his failure to stop it.

The incident transpired in a flash, and Friedemann said Romney then led his cheering schoolmates back to his bay-windowed room in Stevens Hall.

Friedemann, guilt ridden, made a point of not talking about it with his friend and waited to see what form of discipline would befall Romney at the famously strict institution. Nothing happened.

Of course nothing happened. Romney’s father was the popular governor there at the time and the former CEO of American Motors – he was a winner, and so was Mitt:

Friedemann and several people closest to Romney in those formative years say there was a sharp edge to him. In an English class, Gary Hummel, who was a closeted gay student at the time, recalled that his efforts to speak out in class were punctuated with Romney shouting, “Atta girl!” …

One venerable English teacher, Carl G. Wonnberger, nicknamed “the Bat” for his diminished eyesight, was known to walk into the trophy case and apologize, step into wastepaper baskets and stare blindly as students slipped out the back of the room to smoke by the open windows. Once, several students remembered the time pranksters propped up the back axle of Wonnberger’s Volkswagen Beetle with two-by-fours and watched, laughing from the windows, as the unwitting teacher slammed the gas pedal with his wheels spinning in the air.

As an underclassman, Romney accompanied Wonnberger and Pierce Getsinger, another student, from the second floor of the main academic building to the library to retrieve a book the two boys needed. According to Getsinger, Romney opened a first set of doors for Wonnberger, but then at the next set, with other students around, he swept his hand forward, bidding the teacher into a closed door. Wonnberger walked right into it and Getsinger said Romney giggled hysterically as the teacher shrugged it off as another of life’s indignities.

When you’re on top you’re on top:

Built in 1927 by George Booth, publisher of the Detroit News, and named after his father’s alma mater in Kent, England, Cranbrook stood out as an architectural gem in the Michigan woods. Modeled on British boarding schools with “forms” instead of grades, “prefects” instead of RAs, “masters” instead of teachers, it also boasted the work of famed Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. Cranbrook had all the trappings of an elite school where kids walked around like junior executives and, as Tom Elliott, Class of 1966, recalled, learned mantras such as, “Remember who you are, and what you represent.”

“If you went to Cranbrook,” said a classmate, Peter “the Bird” Werbel. “You were crème de la crème.”

That’s just a taste of the long article, and ABC News has more:

“It’s a haunting memory. I think it was for everybody that spoke up about it… because when you see somebody who is simply different taken down that way and is terrified and you see that look in their eye you never forget it. And that was what we all walked away with,” said Phillip Maxwell, who is now an attorney and still considers Romney an old friend.

“I saw it with my own eyes,” said Maxwell, of the anecdote first reported by the Washington Post. Maxwell said Romney held the scissors helping to cut the hair of a student, John Lauber, who was presumed to be gay and who had long hair. “It was a hack job… clumps of hair taken off.” Maxwell said he held the boy’s arm and leg, describing him and his friends as a “pack of dogs.”

Asked if Lauber was targeted because he was gay, as reported by the Post, Maxwell said “We didn’t know that word in those days… but there were other words that were used. We weren’t ignorant; we just didn’t use the current names for things.”

“This was bullying supreme,” he said.

And Kevin Drum wonders about all this:

Does this matter? It was fifty years ago and a different era. And generally speaking, I’ve always felt like there ought to be a political statute of limitations on this kind of thing: anything that happened before, say, age 25 and more than 20 years ago is off limits.

Needless to say, though, that’s decidedly not the way the world actually works, and in the case of presidents their pasts have always been fair game back to the day they entered kindergarten. Like it or not, Romney isn’t being treated any differently here than any other presidential candidate of the past half century.

And Drum cites Paul Waldman saying no, this doesn’t matter, but his current policy positions matter:

Whether he wants to do those things because deep down in his soul he’s a cruel person and always has been, or because he’s perfectly kind to the people he meets but believes in an ideology that is fundamentally cruel, doesn’t matter a bit. He’s not asking us to elect him hall prefect – he’s asking us to elect him president. This story is certainly colorful and interesting, but it shouldn’t change what we think about Mitt Romney as a candidate.

And Jonathan Chait suggests the issue is how some people grow out of their youthful idiocy and some just don’t:

The story does give the sense of a man who lacks a natural sense of compassion for the weak. His prankery seems to have invariably singled out the vulnerable – the gay classmate, the nearly blind teacher, the nervous day student racing back to campus. It’s entirely possible to grow out of that youthful mentality – to learn to step out of your own perspective, to develop an appreciation for the difficulties faced by those not born with Romney’s many blessings. I’m just not sure he ever has.

And there’s Drum:

I think mining the past for clues to people’s character is basically OK as long as you don’t engage in endless pretzel bending to draw absurd conclusions. Barack Obama’s youthful drug use and his community activism say something about him, so they’re fair game. Pretending he’s a whitey-hating anti-colonialist because of imagined influences from his Kenyan father isn’t. In Romney’s case, describing how he treated both friends and non-friends while he was growing up is fair game. It’s partly a window into Romney, and partly a window into the era and culture that he grew up in. But pretending that this makes him an anti-gay bully today isn’t. He’s got decades of adult experiences that tell us what kind of man he’s become. That should be enough.

And for Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog this is enough:

After reading the Washington Post article about Mitt Romney’s prep school days, I think I have a better idea of why he was able to win the Republican presidential nomination, despite the base’s doubts about him. He may not be a dyed-in-the-wool wingnut, but he won because the base can tell that he shares a core belief of theirs: that some people are just unworthy of respect and courtesy and common decency. That’s what right-wing politics is all about these days – sorting the worthy from the unworthy, celebrating the former, and declaring the latter to be somewhat less than human.

So it comes down to this:

Romney’s party believes that all sorts of people are beneath contempt: union workers, liberals, city-dwellers, gay people, immigrants, people who aren’t Christian or Jewish, non-whites who stubbornly refuse to turn right-wing, the uninsured, the (allegedly lazy) unemployed, the underemployed and underpaid, people with underwater mortgages or massive student loan debt, and pretty much anyone (other than a corporate CEO) who ever uses any government program whatsoever (Social Security and Medicare possibly excepted). That’s a partial list. The message of conservatism is that some people deserve respect and empathy and some just don’t. Some people are “us” – full members of the community; others are “them” – parasites and losers.

On a gut level, it’s clear that Mitt Romney had already come to that conclusion back in prep school. And I think it became clear to GOP voters during the primaries, from the way he talked about Obama, about Gingrich, about Santorum – about anyone who got in his way – that his view hasn’t changed.

And Slate’s Emily Bazelon, currently working on her book about bullying, adds this:

Through a spokeswoman, Romney at first called the story “exaggerated and off base.” On Thursday morning, he went on the radio to apologize. “I don’t remember that incident,” Romney said, laughing. “I certainly don’t believe that I thought the fellow was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s, so that was not the case.”

Let’s assume that the details five other people (most but not all of them Democrats) keenly recall are true. How bad is this, as an example of bullying? Was this just the sort of thing that went on at boarding schools in the 1960s? Or does it show a troubling lack of empathy on the part of Romney? The short answer is that it’s both.

Slate founder Michael Kinsley graduated from Cranbrook in 1968, overlapping with Romney, and remembers the school as fairly progressive. He put the story about Romney into the category of things teenage boys do that they’re later ashamed of – not beyond the bounds of Cranbrook’s culture in those days, if also not good. “He missed an opportunity,” Kinsley said. “If he could go back, he’d have broken up that group rather than leading it.”

If… if doesn’t matter now. And Romney wouldn’t have known anything much about gays back in 1965, and Bazelon knows it’s not fair to hold him to today’s standards:

But it is fair to ask what rounding up a bunch of other students to pin a kid down and cut off his hair says about Romney’s sense of empathy. At that moment in time, he showed a startling lack of fellow feeling for John Lauber. This is the aspect of bullying I’ve found most disturbing, in my reporting on it. Experts say that when a powerful kid turns on a weaker one the way Romney did, he can experience a chilling cognitive shift, and come to see his victim as worthless. For a small number of kids who bully, this state of mind hardens, and they become people who can inflict pain without feeling compassion or remorse. Luckily, that is exceedingly rare. Most kids are pitiless one moment and then soften the next. Surely we can put Mitt Romney into this category. This high school incident of cruelty doesn’t mean that he is a cruel person.


At the same time, it does give the lie to this statement from his spokesperson: “Anyone who knows Mitt Romney knows that he doesn’t have a mean-spirited bone in his body.” However true that may be today, like plenty of other people, Romney did reveal a mean streak in adolescence. As a teenager, he apparently saw a kid who didn’t conform to his idea of normal and went after him, cruelly, methodically, and aggressively. It’s not surprising that Romney would have been a straight-laced, by-the-book kind of student who policed gender norms, to use the parlance of our time. But it is surprising that he was such a jerk about it.

But is he a jerk even now? Dahlia Lithwick reminds us of the day before the Post article, when Obama declared his support for gay marriage:

Whatever your view of President Obama’s motives, or the legal consequences of his statement yesterday, it is not in dispute that the words he spoke gave many Americans – including gay children and teenagers – the message that he had heard them, and that their experiences mattered so much that he’d changed his views – personal, political, and legal. He wasn’t declaring war on marriage, or on religious Americans, or on any church or pastor. I didn’t hear anything like blame being leveled against anyone. But he was also declining to blame gay Americans for everything that’s currently wrong in the country from the divorce rate to the economy.

Obama comes from a different place:

Taking his words at face value, what he was saying reflects precisely the thing Obama does at his best: He listens… Many of us think that is also precisely the thing Obama does worst – he compromises, triangulates, and negotiates. But perhaps we could at least stipulate that listening to and – yup, I’m saying it – empathizing with people who are very different from you, and rejiggering your views to accommodate them, is a quality we have seen almost none of in this presidential campaign, from either side. That isn’t to say that every person in the country deserves special solicitude on every policy question from every candidate. But it is to say that the quality whose absence Obama most lamented at the Supreme Court – empathy – has been vanishingly rare in this election cycle as well.

She doesn’t say a word about Romney, but she doesn’t have to:

I can’t read Obama’s words yesterday for their subtext, their super-text, or their invisible risks and calculations. I read them as a very literal reminder of what needs to happen more often during this election campaign: We need to listen to the experiences of others before dismissing them as dangerous, immoral, and wrong. Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope that his whole moral code was conditioned on the idea that to be able to empathize with people richer and poorer, more liberal and more conservative, is to be “forced beyond our limited vision.”

So maybe that’s what we’re choosing this November. We just needed to see that clearly. Obama said what he said about gay marriage, and Romney laughed about those harmless pranks in his past, and apologized if anyone was offended, but just didn’t understand how they could be, really. Now what do you tell your kid? Nice guys finish last? Sometimes they become president.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to When Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last

  1. And just how did Mitt Romney treat his defenceless dog? Aye right as we say.

  2. Odax says:

    Men are the leaders of the world and meant to dominate. Being nice often gets mixed up with being a good person. “Nice” can also mean giving all your power away to let others live the life you want. I say live it up and be the dominant asshole. You get further, men respect you, and women — well, we all know women like the assholes over the nice guys, don’t we? ;)

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