Have you heard the latest dirt on Supreme Court nominee Samuel A. Alito? As reported in the New York Times on November 15, poring over the 1985 application submitted by the then-assistant to the solicitor general for a promotion in the Reagan administration, our Jersey boy (Trenton-born, Mercerville-raised, Princeton-educated) proclaimed his conservative allegiance to the beliefs “that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”
As part of his supporting evidence in the application, Alito cited his membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. “Formed in 1972 to oppose the admission of women to the university, the group moved on to criticize the school’s minority admissions, permissive social norms,” and nondenominational religious outlook, “while supporting the selective admissions policies of private student clubs.”
The next day the Washington Post was on the case, noting that Alito “sought to distance himself” from the “staunchly conservative views he expressed 20 years ago.” The Post dug deeper into the reference to the Concerned Alumni of Princeton “touted” in a 1985 memo to Attorney General Edwin Meese. A trustee committee on alumni affairs, the Post noted, denounced the group as “a persistently hostile and negative voice” that had done “a disservice to the university.”
On November 18 the Daily Princetonian had gotten into the act. In its new, full-size broadsheet format, the Prince was able to launch a six-column broadside: “Alito ‘72 joined conservative alumni group.”
Good stuff. I read it all with interest because I too was affiliated with the Concerned Alumni of Princeton back in the early and mid-1970s. My first reaction to the Alito revelations, of course, was to scratch Supreme Court justice from my short list of potential future careers.
After I recovered from that shock I began to reflect on what a different time it was back then: Nixon had resigned in disgrace, the Democrats were waiting in the wings for the White House, and colleges were falling over themselves to recruit minorities and women.
Here the Concerned Alumni of Princeton was the laughingstock of the intellectual elite — a bunch of old farts trying to “turn back the clock on coeducation,” as the Prince characterized it just last week. But the old farts were not totally stupid and they recruited a small band of conservative-minded recent graduates to publish a magazine called Prospect. The young guys knew me, then a struggling freelance writer, and asked if I could help them with a few harsh realities they had just discovered about publishing: deadlines and space constraints.
In return, they had a large office at 240 Nassau Street (next door to Hoagie Haven!) they were going to sublet. So we did a trade: I got a free office in return for a few hours every two months helping to edit their publication. Sweet.
Even sweeter was the opportunity to peak inside a group that most journalists (yes, we were liberal then, just as most of us are today) would have considered the enemy. I didn’t agree with their views on coeducation or minority admissions, but I was intrigued by the notion that the university, in its quest for all things right and just, had been caught up in its own “liberal-radical body of thought,” as the Concerned Alumni described it.
Phil Lawler, a recent Harvard graduate brought in to edit Prospect, noticed the Princeton mindset right away. The university administration almost never disagreed with a Concerned Alumni position; rather it denounced it as “wrong.” As the liberal establishment saw itself, Lawler would say, “Princeton is perfect — and getting better every day.”
As a freelancer I also contributed to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, where editor Landon Jones was brave enough to accommodate a writer whose work occasionally appeared in the opposing magazine. There was no question in my mind that the thought police were active at Old Nassau. I interviewed politics professor H.H. Wilson, the quintessential leftist professor who had weathered the McCarthy years on the far more conservative Princeton campus of the 1950s. To my surprise Wilson agreed: There was a liberal mindset in the 1970s that had replaced the conservative mindset of two decades before. Now, he said, conservative thinkers had to be careful. And even at universities, minorities sometimes have to struggle to be heard.
The Times, the Post, and the Daily Princetonian interviewed former Concerned Alumni T. Harding Jones (now a theatrical producer) and Andy Napolitano (a judge turned Fox news commentator) and concluded that Alito’s involvement with the Concerned Alumni was probably nothing more than sending in a modest donation. I sure have no memories of the guy ever coming by the organization’s offices, which were right next door to mine.
If he survives this bit of tar, Alito may yet make it to the Supreme Court. If he does I hope he carries with him one lesson I learned from the Concerned Alumni. Even people you disagree with might have an occasional argument worth considering. As the dissident alumni said back then, in response to the university’s blanket condemnations of their positions, “even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”