Romney apologizes for hurtful high school pranks

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Updated 6:35 p.m. ET

(CBS News) OMAHA, Neb. -- Mitt Romney repeatedly apologized Thursday for pranks he played in high school that may have offended or hurt other students, even though he said he does not remember them. The apologies in interviews throughout the day began in a Fox News radio interview that host Brian Kilmeade said was lined up because Romney wanted to discuss a Washington Post story about the incidents.

The Post story led with a vivid description of Romney repeatedly clipping the hair of a young man - presumed by other students to be gay - while other classmates pinned him to the floor, as the victim screamed for help and his eyes filled with tears. "I don't remember that incident," Romney told Kilmeade. "I tell you I certainly don't believe that I ... thought the fella was homosexual. That was the furthest thing from our minds back in the 1960s. So that was not the case. But as to pranks that were played back then, I don't remember them all but again, high school days - if I did stupid things I'm afraid I gotta say sorry for it."

Phillip Maxwell, an attorney in Michigan, confirmed to CBS News that the incident with John Lauber is accurately described in The Washington Post piece. Maxwell was one of the Post's four on-the-record sources. A fifth asked not to be named. Maxwell says the only thing not accurate is that the Post reporter said the incident occurred in a dorm room, but it happened in a common room.

"Mitt was a prankster, there's no doubt about it. This thing with Lauber wasn't a prank. This was, well, as a lawyer, it was an assault. It was an assault and a battery. And I'm sure that John Lauber carried it with him for the rest of his life," Maxwell told CBS News.

The Post's article details Romney's teen-age years spent at Cranbrook, a prestigious prep school in Michigan, and focuses on the many pranks played by the future presidential contender. Several were harmless but others are remembered as cruel, insensitive or frightening to the victims.

Maxwell, who is not a Republican and wasn't planning to vote for Romney, says "this isn't a politically motivated thing for me. I got asked questions by [Post reporter] Jason Horowitz and I responded honestly to him. I didn't decide to bring this thing up. But I think it probably is relevant."

"I've carried this story with me a long time. It was very disturbing. I think that view is shared by everyone involved in it," Maxwell says. "It just was a black mark on my character that I didn't stop it."

The hair-cutting incident, according to The Washington Post, was confirmed by five of Romney's classmates who described the event as "senseless, stupid, idiotic" and "vicious." Candy Porter was the victim of a well-known prank in which Romney and his Cranbrook friends posed as cops, complete with fake siren and badges, and pretended to bust some friends and their dates. Porter told the Post she was "terrified."

Romney was also remembered as having shouted "Atta girl!" when another closeted gay student tried to speak up in the classroom.

Romney said he did not recall that incident. "You know there are a lot of times, my guess is at a boys' school when one of the boys do something and people say 'hey atta girl,'... I had no idea that he was gay," Romney explained when asked about the comment. He again apologized for having offended anyone, saying no harm was intended.

When Kilmeade asked if The Post's article was meant to show that he grew up in an intolerant environment, Romney was quick to say during Thursday's interview with Brian Kilmeade that he did not, and he pointed out that the sexual orientation of the people referenced in the story was not known when they were all in high school. "I had no idea that this person might have been gay," Romney said, "and the article points out I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks in high school and some may have gone too far and for that I apologize."

When asked about Romney's comments this morning that he didn't remember the hair-cutting incident, Maxwell told CBS News that he found it "hard to believe that he doesn't remember this."

"Certainly all of us who were involved in it have very distinct memories of it. I would think if you were the perpetrator your memories would be even sharper," Maxwell added.

However, John French, a retired Michigan businessman who graduated with Romney from Cranbrook, came to Romney's defense, telling CBS News political correspondent Jan Crawford that he was "flabbergasted" by the accusations against Romney.

"I can't ever remember a time that Mitt was malicious in anything he did. The idea of him being a bully... I almost laugh at it," said French, who says he has known Romney since the age of eight. "Mitt was a very, very, very funny guy. But malicious, no never."

The Romney campaign, in full damage-control mode by day's end, circulated statements from two former classmates at Cranbrook, including French, who depicted him as a caring person. "He would never go out and do anything mean spirited. Clownish, yes. Never mean,"said Richard Moon. French said it was "absurd" to try to characterize Romney as a bully. "Mitt never had a malicious bone in his body," he said.

Romney told Kimeade that his propensity for pranks and causing a bit of trouble changed when he met his future wife, Ann, while he was still in high school.

"There's no question you know I became a very different person as I meet Ann," he said. "So I went off and served as a missionary for my church. I mean there are elements in life that change you. I'm a very different person than I was in high school, of course. I'm glad that I learned as much as I did during those high school years."

Additional reporting by CBS News political correspondent Jan Crawford.

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    Sarah Huisenga is covering the Mitt Romney campaign for CBS News and National Journal.

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