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Phillip Maxwell

Phillip Maxwell is an attorney in Michigan and a former classmate of Mitt Romney at the Cranbrook School. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Gabrielle Tenenbaum on Aug. 29, 2012. (29:09)

Phillip Maxwell is an attorney in Michigan and a former classmate of Mitt Romney at the Cranbrook School. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Gabrielle Tenenbaum on Aug. 29, 2012.

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    Tell me how you first became friends with Mitt Romney.

    We were in the fourth grade at Vaughan School here in Bloomfield Hills and became very fast buddies.

    Describe a young Mitt Romney.

    He was like just a live wire. He was enormously energetic and just going a million miles an hour. It was like that.

    And physically describe him.

    He was a real skinny -- there was something simian about him. He looked like a monkey. He had a very low hairline. Wish I had a hairline that low. And he was just nonstop energy, just going all the time.

    And would you go over to --

    Yeah, we did sleepovers at one another's house. And my grandparents had a farm, so he would come and stay at the farm. And I would always have to caution him that these were older people; you need to calm down, you know. But he was like that.

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    The Romney house was 'a lot of fun'

    Describe the Romney house. What it was like to go over there?

    It was a lot of fun, because it was kind of very different from my house, where they contend with an older brother. Everything was movies. There was a little movie theater, and you'd get first-run movies and sit-down dinners always, a lot of discussion at dinner. George Romney could engage with a fencepost, you know. He would focus on you, and it didn't matter whether you were 8 years old or 9 years old, he wanted to hear what you had to say. And we had great discussions around the dinner table. They were a very, very warm and engaging group of people.

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    You sort of touched on it, but tell me a little bit more about George Romney. Give me a sense of him.

    He was just a force of nature. I mean, he was like Mitt. He was bursting with energy. But it was very physical, you know. If he didn't get what he wanted -- I remember one incident when he first became governor, and I think he had a Democratic House, and they couldn't get the budget through. And there's a famous picture of him grabbing the majority leader by the lapel and just shaking him, which, of course, he'd be in jail by now for that. But he was like that. He was very determined, very out front, an interesting character.

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    We've heard a lot about the relationship between Mitt and his dad. So tell me what you observed.

    Mitt was the caboose of the family, and he was doted on. There was a big gap between he and his brother. I think Mitt got probably far more attention than any of the other kids had gotten. And he and his father were very close. And I think Mitt idolized him. He was an easy guy to idolize.

    I think he tracked his course in life by his father. He wanted to go where he had gone and where he didn't go.

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    Growing Up Romney

    And just take me back to those years. What was it like to be a young kid here in Birmingham, [Mich.]?

    Well, you know, it's funny, because at the time, I suppose Detroit was probably the industrial capital of the world because the auto companies were centered here. And a lot of other related industries, like rubber and steel and glass, were all dependent on Detroit. When Detroit rose, the economy rose. When Detroit fell, the nationwide economy fell. You got the impression of a rather small town, but with a big enterprise going on right at the heart of it. So you tended to know everybody.

    In Cranbrook, the heads of the auto companies, their kids all went there. I remember one, Bill Estes, his father ran Pontiac. He always had the latest GTOs with, you know, racing-equipped and all that. So it was very much of a car town. My family had been in the automobile business a long time. I had one great-grandfather who was a chief engineer of Packard, later of Dodge Brothers. And then another had served a large wheel and brake company, supplying all the auto companies.

    So we were right in the middle of it. I don't think we appreciated how significant the industry was to the country at the time. Now we see. When it goes away, it's a big hole. But it was an interesting place. There were a lot of larger things going on in connection with Detroit. There was civil rights, race issues. The riots came in '68; Detroit was obviously not ready.

    But Romney, George Romney, to his credit, I remember he was a great supporter of civil rights -- at some political risk I think, as well. I think he was called on the carpet by the Mormon Church about it. But he was very steadfast and stated his opinion. If you didn't like it, you could leave the room. That's the way he was.

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    And the fact that they're Mormon, I mean, there weren't that many Mormon families in the Michigan area. Was that something that you were aware of? Was that something you saw?

    I was aware of it. It didn't mean a whole lot to me. I think they didn't wear it on their sleeve. I just don't think it was really an issue. The Mormon Church was built in Bloomfield Hills I think in the '70s, which made it more prominent in this area. But I don't think it was an issue.

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    Others on this topic:
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    What Mitt Romney was like in high school

    And give me a sense of Cranbrook. Talk to me about the culture of Cranbrook.

    Cranbrook has changed a lot. When I was there, it was sort of the last of the classical education. Cranbrook was modeled on British public schools. And it was coat and ties. It was Latin. It was a classical education.

    One thing about Cranbrook that was probably unique was the writing program. We had a very rigorous -- when you got there in the seventh grade, every weekend you had something to write. It might be a short story. It might be a one-act play. It might be a TV adaptation. But you had something every weekend.

    And it forced you to deal with deadlines, for one thing. But it also taught you how to organize your thoughts and writing. And to a man, if you asked a Cranbrook graduate what they got out of it, even the ones who hated it the most will say, "Well, they did teach me how to write." And that's the best thing about the school.

    And describe Mitt Romney at Cranbrook, the guy you knew then.

    You know, I think he was sort of off his game in high school. He was not an athlete. And Cranbrook was a funny place. There were some very, very bright kids there. You were either very bright and got attention that way, or you were a good athlete and you got attention that way. And he was sort of in the middle. He hadn't really, although he's a very bright guy, he really hadn't applied himself, I don't think.

    So he was sort of swimming around in high school. I don't think he had focused. And that's sort of his big skill, is to focus on things. He's very determined. He has to visualize his goals, and then he focuses on it. Usually he gets it, as we see in Tampa.

    But that kid at that time, the guy that you were friends with, what was he involved in? What was his reputation at the time?

    You know, he tried to do sports. It was kind of a disaster. I remember there was a cross-country run at homecoming, where I think he collapsed before the finish. His father was there. I think it must have been a humiliating day for him. He tried. He was our manager on the hockey team. He wore his coat and tie and his galoshes and carried the bag of sticks and pucks.

    But the thing about Mitt was he always pitched in. But I think he was, at that time, he really hadn't found his -- his game was elsewhere. And I think all of the pranks that have been written about stem from a guy who was looking to excel in something, wanted some attention and just hadn't found it.

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    Others on this topic:
    Growing Up Romney
    Mitt, the prankster

    And is that how he got attention? I mean, was he known as the lighthearted, funny sort of prank --

    Yes. That was sort of the personality at Cranbrook.

    Just give me a sense of that guy.

    Some of them were very funny pranks. And I was in on a couple of them. One was -- and I think I may have been as much the planner of this one as he was. He had a state police badge because his father was the governor. And my father had a Chevy coupe that looked very much like a police car. And we got my uncle's Air Force uniform. We dressed Romney up as a cop. And we had an understanding with a couple of other students who were on a double date that we had to stop, a safety stop.

    And Mitt got out with his flashlight and asked for the license and registration and then went around to the trunk and found a whiskey bottle that we had planted. And then we had to take the boys away and put them in the police car. And the girls were -- they had fallen, you know, hook, line and sinker for this whole thing. They were terrified. And I don't think anybody told them until they got back to the dorms that it was a scam. That was one example of the kind of things.

    There was one, another, which I was not in on, but I saw a video of, where they got a dining room table, set it up in the median of Woodward Avenue, and had a fancy dinner right in the middle of the median, with waiters, and filmed it.

    Another that I can think of was Mitt going -- I don't know who was with him on this one. I think they went to pick it was either his sister or aunt up at the airport, coming back from junior year abroad. And they went dressed in scrubs with a gurney and strapped her in the gurney the minute she got off the plane, and hustled her out on the gurney. That was pure Romney right there.

    But that's the kind of things that he did. And they were funny. Those were funny.

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    Others on this topic:
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    'The hair-cutting incident'

    So let's talk about the one that was less funny. So in as much detail as possible, just tell me how you remember it.

    Yeah. I think it was senior year. I think it was after spring break. I was coming back from the dorms from lunch, headed toward the dorms with a friend of mine, Tom Buford. And as we walked in to Page Hall, we saw a bunch of people running – Romney ... and there was a group. There was maybe five, six people, in a hurry. So we followed them.

    And as we walked into the commons rooms, Mitt and Matt and a couple of other guys were accosting John Lauber. He was a young guy who had come back from spring break with bleached-blond hair, and rather long for the time. And the whole thing didn't last more than 15 or 20 seconds. He was wearing his hair too long, so he started this sort of general ribbing. And then it got more heated, and he was taken down to the ground. And Mitt had scissors and cut his hair.

    It happened so quickly. It was, I think, out of character for him. I never saw him act that way again. I hadn't seen him act that way before, where this was not a prank; it was an assault. And it was deliberately aimed at somebody who was of lesser, younger, not as prominent, a lesser person than himself. And it was a disturbing incident I think for everybody that was involved. All the guys who were contacted by The Washington Post, who came forward and admitted that it had happened -- there were five -- it was disturbing for all of us. And I remember feeling it immediately, just from the look on this kid's face when he was put down.

    As you described it today when we spoke on the phone, you said that as you were coming, as you started seeing what was happening, you recognized that Mitt Romney had scissors in his hand. And you said at that point, you got concerned.

    You know, I cautioned Lauber not to fight it, because Mitt had scissors in his hand. And I was afraid that if there was a jostling, somebody was going to get cut. So we sort of lowered him down. And although he didn't fight, he was clearly terrified. You could see it in his eyes. And he was, at the end, screaming.

    And in terms of the group that have admitted to coming forward, and your own involvement, just from your perspective, just sort of explain how you got involved and what happened and how you felt following that.

    There was a group of us who had gone to school with Mitt, who had been contacted just regularly by the press for the last year. The Washington Post had been the most persistent. Once we were contacted, we started talking among ourselves. Somebody brought up the incident: "And what about the haircutting incident?" And we said: "Let's leave it. It's too long ago." And that was our decision. And this was maybe in March.

    I got a call from the reporter from the Post sometime in April, and he had the whole story at that point. He had all the names. He had the facts straight. And then the group who had been conferring before talked again, and we decided that it was out, that we would either confirm or deny it. And that was it -- which I think four guys did come forward and confirm the facts, all very credible characters -- David Seed, Tom Buford, Matt Friedemann and one who was unnamed, who is also a very credible guy.

    And looking back on a younger version of yourself, why did you get involved?

    Well, you know, because I think I was always ready to rumble at that age. I was more muscle than sense. I didn't think about what I was doing. It all happened very quickly. I hadn't been in on the planning of the thing. If I had been in on the planning, I probably would have been more reluctant to get involved. But, you know, it happened in a flash. And the only thing to my credit that I can say is that I immediately regretted what I had done.

    And when we talked on the phone, you described others feeling the same way about that.

    You know, Tom Buford, my very closest friend in Cranbrook, was immediately affected by it, and he went to Lauber almost immediately and apologized to him. And he said it affected him generally, you know, that he was sort of a turning point for him, because he, the next year after graduation, I think he got involved in the Cranbrook's Outward Bound Program, which was a program which brought inner-city kids into Cranbrook on scholarships. They had a summer program which he was involved in. And he attributed that change in direction to this incident. It kind of woke him up.

    David Seed, who was the head prefect of the school the next year, I think he remarked in that Washington Post piece that he ran into Lauber in the airport in Chicago like 20 years later, and went up to him and made a point of apologizing. And Lauber, according to the report, admitted what a harrowing experience it had been. So I think it had an effect on everybody who was involved in it.

    And why do you think -- I mean, we talked about this a little bit on the phone -- why do you think it was a story? I mean, Cranbrook was a place known for its rules. People got expelled all the time. Why do you think the story didn't get out there, and why do you think you didn't receive a punishment for it?

    You know, I don't know for certain that it ever reached headmaster's office. I think it was pretty widely known among the student body, but I don't know how much farther it got after that. I expected there to have been repercussions. But, you know, I think part of it was that Lauber didn't tell anybody. Had he gone to his housemaster and said what had happened, I think there would have been repercussions. But he did not. And sadly, he was expelled before the end of the school year for smoking.

    Which you said was common.

    It was common. And, you know, Lone Pine Road was the border, the southern border of the school. And it was a few hundred yards from the dormitories. So guys would get to Lone Pine Road, get a pizza, you know, have a cigarette, whatever. But he got caught, and he was gone.

    And one of the things that, as we've spoken to people who were not involved, who didn't know, they say that they knew about Mitt Romney's pranks, and they were well known, but they can't imagine something of this nature taking place. It's just not consistent with the guy that they knew.

    Well he wasn't the kind of bully -- you know, the big kid on the playground is a bully. This wasn't -- although it ended up being something where somebody was victimized. He needed a posse to pull it off here. He wasn't that kind of a bully. Maybe he could formulate the intent to be a bully, but he couldn't carry it out. So he couldn't have been able to have done this without the assistance of what were really some of the premiere athletes in the school -- ashamed to say that, but it was true -- who were involved in this. ...

    And you said something to me really interesting on the phone, which ... is the idea that many people, sort of in the aftermath of this story coming out, said to you that they wouldn't have believed it either. ...

    Well, you know, there was a comment after this thing came out at first, that, you know, that's not the Mitt that I knew. And it wasn't the Mitt that I knew, either. And if I hadn't seen it, I probably wouldn't believe it. But it did happen.

    And talk to me about his reaction after.

    I remember a lot of sort of high-fiving, like somebody had taken a scalp. It was kind of a silly -- I remember seeing Buford walk away very hangdog, like he had fully realized what foolishness he'd been involved in. Yeah, there was no high-fiving from the guys that were on the ground.

    And you yourself?

    I remember walking away just feeling dirty, that this was just something we shouldn't have done. I had never been involved in an incident like that, where you were preying on somebody weaker than you. That I think immediately left me with a bad taste in my mouth. ...

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    His father was the commencement speaker at your graduation. Do you remember anything?

    I do actually; I do. George, his thing [was] you had to formulate what you wanted in your mind, and you had to program your mind to obtain it. So his whole thing was about, you know, you decide what you want, because you can do anything as long as you decide to do it, which was pure George. That was right up his alley. And I think he also, there were remarks in that speech also about, you know, finding the right woman, which certainly was apropos for Mitt at the time.

    And it sounds like George Romney and Lenore Romney had a pretty remarkable relationship of their own. Is that something you observed?

    Yeah. It was amazing, yeah. I've heard the story that he, every morning, put a rose on her pillow. But he was enormously respectful of her at all times. And she was a woman who spoke her mind and was very articulate, could hold her own in any conversation. So I remember the dinner-table conversations. You know, George had more than met his match in Lenore. She was a remarkable woman.

    And did you and Mitt stay in contact once he went off to Stanford?

    You know, I think we sort of lost one another after that first year. He went on his mission at that point. I know I saw him afterward when he came back, and he seemed to have grown up a lot in that period of time. He was much more serious, much more serious about getting on with the rest of his life. And I think he had mapped it out by that time. But he was a different guy, there's no doubt. ...

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    Others on this topic:
    A Father's Influence
    'Mitt was tutored to go seek high office'

    Do you think that his father, having sort of spent time with them and been at the house, is that a sort of path that his father laid for him? Or do you think it was something he saw great success in, ambition in his own dad, to want to make him proud? How do you see that?

    You know, Mitt's growing up was very much a political seminar, because he was involved in his father's campaigns. He was involved in his mother's campaign for the Senate. I think that was 1970, and he really saw it on the ground, because I remember that summer, I think they hit every county in Michigan, Lenore and Mitt. And it was a bruising campaign. She was attacked by the right wing of the party, and then she was attacked by the Democrats when the main part of the campaign started, and very unfairly. And she just got creamed, too, by Phil Hart, who -- it was a sacrificial run anyway.

    But Mitt, when he was away from school, he was involved in politics. I remember in the fifth grade him coming to school with a ballpoint pen. He gave it to me, and I looked at it. And it said "Richard M. Nixon, Vice President." And then he pulled out a piece of paper, and it was autographed to me from Richard Nixon. And he had been to dinner at the Romneys' house. So that's the kind of contact he was having as a kid. He was 10.

    It's like Alexander the Great. Who was his tutor, Aristotle? Mitt was tutored to go seek high office. The fact that his father had gotten derailed in his attempt I think only increased his determination to follow through and do it himself. And I know he's done it. So it's a remarkable thing. ...

Topics in this interview

?> Growing Up RomneyA Father's Influence
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