(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The more we learn about Mitt Romney, the more it makes sense that his defining physical characteristic is his hair.

Since 2004, pundits have insisted that Mitt’s helmet, tinted silver at the sides just so, is “perfect” and “presidential.” His hair is one of his few natural political gifts—it is not dyed (as far as we know), any more than it ever gets mussed or hangs in his eyes. And now we know from period photos that his current do is the lineal descendant of his hair in prep school, where, in his senior year, Mitt attacked a fellow student for his defining physical characteristic: his hair.

As Jason Horowitz tells it in the Washington Post, in 1965, when Romney returned to Cranbrook School after spring break,

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.

Lauber’s hair wasn’t just long and free, like a woman’s, and bleached as only a woman’s would be in 1965; it also covered one eye. A person was hiding under there, peeking out at the others, keeping a secret—maybe he was winking—and this made the hair on the back of young Mitt’s neck stand to attention. “He can’t look like that! That’s wrong. Just look at him!”

Maybe none of the boys who attacked Lauber felt even a momentary attraction stirring in that repulsion, the kind of repressed homoerotic feelings that Colbert weaves into his standard parody of right-wing homophobia. Romney now claims that he, apparently unlike almost everyone else at Cranbrook, hadn’t a clue that Lauber was gay (which he was).He also says he doesn’t remember anything about the incident—which he nevertheless doesn’t deny and ever so weakly apologizes for.

An unnamed former classmate, who describes Romney’s behavior in the dorms as “like Lord of the Flies,” doesn’t believe Romney can’t remember the episode the other boys involved can’t forget. The classmate told ABC News: “It makes these fellows very remorseful. For [Romney] not to remember it? It doesn’t ring true. How could the fellow with the scissors forget it?”

But let’s take Romney’s word for it. If he really doesn’t remember, maybe it’s because he’s repressed the memory of Lauber’s sexual orientation along with any memory of why his hair was so threatening in the first place.

Well, not to get too Freudian here. Rush Limbaugh, for one, says that even if Romney did cut Lauber’s hair, it had nothing to do with the gay: it was just good ‘ol American hit-a-hippie fun.

1965—probably a stretch to say it had anything to do with the kid being presumed gay. You had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get razzed. It didn’t matter. They weren’t gonna think you were in the Beatles. If you had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get made fun of. See, 1965’s a great year; bullying was legal.

Kris Kristofferson’s 1970 song, “Law is for Protection of the People,” attests to how common unprovoked ganging-up on nonconformists once was:

Homer Lee Honeycutt was nothing but a hippie
Walkin’ through this world without a care
Then one day six strapping brave policemen
Held down Homer Lee and cut his hair

’Cause the law is for protection of the people
Rules are rules and any fool can see
We don’t need no hairy-headed hippies
Scaring decent folks like you and me
No siree

To this day, forced hair-cutting is used to punish those who flout authority. Last fall, Sam Mullet Sr. and fourteen members of his family were charged with conspiracy and hate crimes after allegedly cutting the beards and hair of fellow Amish men and women in Bergholz, Ohio. Mullet, the leader of the community, was apparently upset that they weren’t conforming to his religious commands.

Today, Romney won’t be pinned down about the Cranbrook incident. The really disturbing thing is that even as he insists he doesn’t recall the attack, he chuckles. Here he is on Brian Kilmeade’s radio show, jovially not remembering anything.

The laughing denial is a Romney tell—and not just when he’s talking about gay-bashing. He chuckles while chatting about anything uncomfortable, whether about the dog on his car roof or his dad closing down a car factory in Michigan, as Rachel Maddow showed last week.

But the guilty giggle over hazing homosexuals seems particularly strained, and not just because gays vote: hate crimes carry real penalties today, as the Amish are finding out. The state of New Jersey just convicted a college student for secretly taping his roommate (who later committed suicide) with a gay friend—and that perpetrator never laid a finger on his victim, much less swarmed him with a posse of preppies to throw him to the ground and cut his hair.

And that’s one reason Romney will surely ignore two smart proposals on how he can redeem himself. Joe Klein recommends that Romney say something like, “If elected President, I will try to atone for my teenage behavior by campaigning against bullying all across this country. What I did back then should be an example of how not to behave. I hope we can all learn from this. I know I have.”

Lee Hirsch, the director of the documentary Bully, suggests a similar salvage job. “What I see is an opportunity for Mitt Romney to lead and really be an advocate for decreasing bullying,” Hirsch told TPM. “It’s sad to hear what occurred many years ago characterized as ‘pranks’ and ‘horsing around.’…This was a presidential moment, and this should be a teachable moment for him.”

Such suggestions would require Romney to acknowledge that he was a bully, however, and that’s just not the way Mitt rolls.

Anyway, according to Limbaugh, the real victim in all this is Mitt Romney. “It is so pathetically transparent what this is,” he said on Thursday. “Media ganging up on Romney—a pro-Obama media ganging up on Romney.”

That is one of the stories right-wingers, like Karl Rove and Erik Erikson, tell themselves now, that somehow the Lauber story isn’t true, that it’s a liberal-media fabrication, and anyway, what happened in high school should stay in high school.

All this personal stuff is irrelevant, they say. The real issue is the economy, and the Obama team is using a cultural wedge issue to unfairly divide the GOP (where’d they get that idea?).

But maybe the public will see that this character question, about whether it’s okay for rich insiders to gang up on the weak and vulnerable, isn’t so distant from economics after all. The fear is that if this bully with no capacity for self-examination is elected president-–and if he is, opposing gay marriage and civil unions may be a big reason why—he and his Ryan-budget buddies will hold us all down and make us take a permanent haircut in medical benefits and programs like Social Security.

And we didn’t even wink at him once.