Report from Princeton Reunions: One of the best things about this annual pilgrimage by more than 25,000 Princeton University alumni back to the campus that has become known as the best old place of all, is that you get to form relationships with people you never even knew during your college years. This year, at my 48th college reunion, I made a new friend, a member of the Class of 1992, returning for his 25th reunion, who was a star of the Princeton University debate team, and a guy you may know in his role as United States senator, Ted Cruz.
I caught up with my newfound Reunions buddy last Friday afternoon at Richardson Auditorium, the ornate, late-19th-century venue that was the scene of the annual alumni-undergraduate debate sponsored by the undergraduate debating society, the American Whig-Cliosophic Society. In my intermittent appearances at Reunions over five decades, I had never before attended one of these affairs. And I can only guess that the event has never attracted a crowd like this.
Alumni who had participated in Whig-Clio were invited to reserve ticketed seats on the main floor of the auditorium. All those seats had been snatched up. The balcony was set aside for everyone else — as long as you were a registered Reunions participant and had a precious wristband to prove it. By the time the debaters walked on stage the balcony was filled, with dozens more standing around the outside perimeter. A lot of them, I suspect, were there for the reason cited by the classmate sitting next to me: How could Princeton ever produce a guy like this?
As the man reputed to be the most disliked member of the U.S. Senate, Ted seemed pretty much at ease in this tigers’ den. “Well, I do have 21 hours of remarks prepared,” he began, referring to his much ridiculed 2013 Senate filibuster in which he read “Green Eggs and Ham” among other time-killers. That set the tone for a self-deprecating romp through a rather lame, I thought, debate premise: “Is it better to be a Princeton undergraduate or a Princeton alumnus?”
Cruz promised 17 “separate and independent” reasons to support his argument on behalf of alumni status. “Number 1,” he said, looking at his two opponents from this year’s senior class, who were about four days away from morphing from students into alumni, “you better hope we’re right.”
He rolled through his points: Dorm rooms, “they suck,” he argued. And as an alumnus you could look forward to “good beer.”
Then, apparently on a more serious note, he mentioned longevity. Major accomplishments in life, he said, “take time — even decades. Four years is not enough.” (Dramatic pause.) “It would be like serving in the Senate for four years and then running for president. It would be preposterous.”
The undergraduates had lots to look forward to, Cruz argued. They could still pull all-nighters — “they call them filibusters.” And as an alumnus, “you could become president, though I wouldn’t know. And if you lose then Donald Trump becomes president.”
By the time he was done Cruz had shown the crowd his soft side. His first opponent, a senior philosophy major named Nathan Raab, gave Cruz a chance to show that he could take a joke as well as deliver one. If students want to get involved in politics they can run for the Undergraduate Student Government (USG), Raab argued. “If you run for USG no one will accuse your father of assassinating JFK. And if you try to shut down the USG, it doesn’t matter. Because the USG doesn’t do anything.”
Finally, Raab noted that when you are an undergraduate at Princeton orange and black are clearly the school colors. But when you’re an alumnus, “orange is the color of the president’s hair, and black is the color of Steve Bannon’s heart.”
When Raab finished his round I figured I had heard the highlights of this exchange. Only the people seated on the main floor would be allowed to ask questions. And they were all Whig-Clio alumni who — in my day, at least — would stand around in coats and ties invoking fussy debate rules while the real players were out on the streets storming buildings spewing vile diatribes at administrators.
But I should have hung out a little longer. As I learned later, one of those Whig-Clio alumni, a few years behind Cruz, began his question with an innocuous thank you to Cruz for welcoming him to the debate society when he was a freshman. Then came his question — in effect that if alumni are in position to do so much good, then how can you use that opportunity to take away healthcare from 23 million Americans?
Ouch. If Cruz didn’t have friends in the debate crowd, where would he?
The next day Cruz participated in “a conversation” with Professor Robert George, Cruz’s senior thesis adviser and one of the very few conservative faculty on the Princeton campus. The Woodrow Wilson School auditorium was packed. The conversation began on the need for diversity and tolerance of unpopular views on college campuses. Cruz noted that he came to Princeton from a high school with a senior class of just 43 students. While he knew Princeton would be “overwhelmingly liberal” he also sensed it had a “critical mass of conservatives.”
At some places, Cruz said, there is “a stifling fear of dissent. But if you truly believe in what you believe you shouldn’t be afraid of some opposition. It produces a better result.”
Turning to national politics, George voiced a concern about the wave of nationalism that seems to be overtaking the conservative values of John Stuart Mill, as well as principles of limited government, “old fashioned liberalism,” and a respect for freedom of speech that is more than just an abstraction. “Am I being paranoid,” he asked Cruz, “to think that in the age of Trump that understanding of conservatism is now in danger?”
“Republicans and conservatives are wondering where we stand,” Cruz replied. But “I wouldn’t assume too much” about the Trump administration. “The president did not run an ideological campaign. My rule is that I won’t comment on the Tweet of the day. I will comment on the issues. And the substance of what Trump has done so far has been pretty good.”
George doubled down. “To me the default ideology of nationalism doesn’t look like old-fashioned American patriotism,” the Constitutional law professor told his former student. “I see abuse of the separation of powers. I see no respect for Federalism. I see a loss if the conservative movement embraces Trump.”
Cruz acknowledged that he would stand up to the president if “massive government programs” started coming out of Washington. But he insisted that “nationalism can mean a lot of things,” and in the current state of affairs it means “having a president fighting for American working men and women.”
The questions from the audience were polite, as one would expect of a college community where a career on Wall Street is still a cherished opportunity. A guy from the Class of 1972 noted that the Senate needed the “nuclear option” to override a Democratic filibuster of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and asked Cruz if anything could be done to defuse the partisanship.
Cruz never answered the question but spoke at length about how few Trump nominees have been confirmed for top-level federal positions (without mentioning that Trump has not offered nominees for more than 400 such positions and that the administration lagged in getting its nominees vetted) and about how no other judge has been filibustered since Abe Fortas in 1968 (without mentioning Merrick Garland, whose nomination last year was never even heard).
Cruz had been almost 25 minutes late showing up for the event. To his credit he stood around afterward for nearly an hour, answering questions and posing for photos. I introduced myself, thanked him for visiting this liberal bastion, and then asked him to explain Merrick Garland. That was different, he argued. Supreme Court nominees are almost never confirmed in an election year, he told me (without mentioning that several vacancies have been filled in an election year — most recently Reagan appointee Anthony Kennedy, confirmed in February, 1988). But in any case, he added, the idea first came from Chuck Schumer in the last year of the George W. Bush presidency. And the Democrats would really regret their approach this summer, if and when Kennedy retires and Trump gets to pick another justice.
While Cruz was greeting the young conservatives, I visited with his former college roommate and later his roommate at Harvard Law School, a Jamaican now running an investment firm specializing in the transportation industry. David Panton and I agreed that — no matter your views — the political scene has been an amazing spectacle since Trump’s election. We also agreed that Rachel Maddow is one of our favorite television commentators. Panton recalled Maddow’s eye-opening account of the transaction in which Trump sold a house in Florida, which he had purchased in 2004 for $41 million, to a Russian who paid Trump $95 million in 2008 and then tore it down. If Panton is Cruz’s echo chamber, then you would have to wonder how strong Cruz’s allegiance would be in any Senate showdowns.
As noon approached, the group had dwindled to Cruz, Panton, and a few university people. The two classmates talked about heading over to PJ’s Pancake House, about a block away on Nassau Street, to meet another alumnus, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos ’86, whose wife is a member of the Class of ’92.
I only thought about tagging along. But I did check later: Ted and his roommate stopped in front of PJ’s, surveyed the line, and decided they couldn’t wait. Back to the debating question: Is it better to be a Princeton undergraduate or a Princeton alumnus? When it comes to getting into PJ’s at noon on a busy Saturday, it doesn’t matter. Call it democracy in action.