BOCA: AN EXPLANATION
This is not an apocryphal story.
I had a friend in prep school who, fifty years ago, made the same mistake Mitt Romney made in Boca Raton recently.
My friend came from an advantaged family and was sent East to a highly regarded prep school. Once there, he wanted desperately to become “one of the guys,” and so he inhaled and swallowed every attitude, prejudice, speech pattern of his new schoolmates.
In those days classes were conducted around Harkness tables, gigantic mahagony structures surrounded by a dozen chairs. This formation allowed the instructor and the students to seem to be on an equal level and to exchange points of view without worry or embarrassment.
One day, our young hero was sitting in such a classroom. The time was devoted to American history. The topic under consideration was the waves of immigration that made it to these shores successively.
Our Midwestern scholar had a thought and spoke out, using every conceivable and perjorative term for each wave of foreigners he had learned since arriving: Spics, Wops, Micks…all terms he had heretofore never uttered but felt that by doing so now would indicate he was part of the crowd he wanted so badly to join.
After class, one of his new friends drew him aside to tell him that a student, also in the class, seated directly across from our Candide, was the grandson of the current president of Italy.
Of course, during class, no one had mentioned this or stopped our ambitious scholar from embarrassing himself.
They didn’t have to. When he was told of his intemperate speech, and why it was unsuitable, he reported that his stomach dropped, he felt weak in the knees, that he had had to lean against an ivy-covered wall for support.
Simply, he felt like the worst and most despicable character in all of American history.
He rushed back to his dorm room and wrote a sincerely and deeply apologetic note to his classmate whose grandfather held such an exalted position. He couldn’t explain his outburst, but he knew how hurtful it was. He would have done anything to take back every word.
He mailed his note.
And the classmate in question had the good sense and manners never to mention the incident or to reply.
Why had our country mouse done such an atrocious thing? Because he was a country bumpkin who felt “different” or “other” who wanted to prove to one and all how astonishingly sophisticated he was and how much part of the main stream he so admired.
Quick cut: Mitt Romney goes to a prep school called Cranbrook. He is from a very advantaged family. But he, too, feels “other” or “different,” and he was. He was a Mormon. He was outside the general run of Episcopalian education and he wanted to prove to one and all how much he belonged within it.
Fifty years later he still feels that way. He is still a Mormon. A very rich one, to be sure, but nonetheless “different.” So he employs every perjorative term he thinks his listeners would themselves use, adopts attitudes and positions he may not feel but feels certain his listeners do, uses what he considers their usual and common speech patterns, and blows himself up.
The single difference between these two corn-fed students is that in the first case perhaps a dozen people heard what was said; in the second, an entire nation did.
Each of these “others” had a father. One had worked from nothing to achieve great success in industry. So had the other. At the time our first scholastic voyageur was so desperately trying to adopt to new surroundings and attitudes, his father announced one night at dinner that he didn’t any longer admire his son, that he felt his son was turning out to be a “snot.” No one knows what George Romney would have said but probably it would have been close to the same.
The beneficial effects of these two experiences is that neither of the two in question would ever forget how they had submarined their own lives, and how never again would they make the same mistake.