Ted Cruz went to Princeton? Really? I hear that question a lot now that the Texas senator — and member of the Princeton Class of 1992 — is in the thick of the 2016 presidential race. I’m guessing that people find the Princeton association surprising because 1.) they don’t normally associate an Ivy League bastion of liberal politics with a tea party conservative such as Cruz; and 2.) they don’t imagine that the earnest, bright, and engaging students who typically end up at Princeton could include a cold, calculating, and conniving political hack such as Cruz.
So what should we make of the conservative movement at Princeton and Ted Cruz in particular?
With respect to item 1 above, here’s a little history about conservatives at Princeton — a subject I revisited just last week when the far-right firebrand Dinesh D’Souza, one of the players in that history, spoke at Rider University.
Beginning back in the 1960s, Princeton and most every other college acquired an overwhelmingly liberal mindset. But perhaps because of its more conservative past, as well as the close ties that “old guard” alumni maintained with the university, the few conservative students on campus began to receive moral (and financial) support from a conservative alumni group, the Concerned Alumni of Princeton, in 1972.
As I have written before in this space, I got involved with the group as a freelance editor, making some sense out of their political tracts in return for some surplus office space they were renting.
The Concerned Alumni generated a lot of publicity, but conservative undergraduates on campus remained few and far between. So few, in fact, that the Concerned Alumni had to reach out to colleges like Dartmouth to recruit young conservatives to edit the alternative Princeton alumni magazine, known as Prospect.
In the 1980s the Concerned Alumni became much more strident, thanks in part to the hiring of Dinesh D’Souza, a 1983 Dartmouth graduate. With D’Souza at the helm, Prospect enraged the liberal mainstream by charging that the university had intervened against a conservative mother of a Puerto Rican freshman who had tried to remove her daughter from school after discovering she was having sex with a male student. The article triggered a petition from students who viewed it as an invasion of privacy. The Concerned Alumni got more national publicity when it charged that the director of the university’s health clinic had “celebrated the fact that 31 out of 33 pregnant students had abortions after receiving counseling from Princeton’s sex clinic.”
Last week I listened to D’Souza present a speech at Rider on “The Moral Case for Capitalism.” The program described D’Souza as a “writer, scholar, public intellectual, and former policy analyst in the Reagan White House.”
That sold him short. He is also a political provocateur of the highest order. At Rider he skillfully created a straw man — a community of bitter and envious liberals and leftists who turn to government for entitlements and — using the guise of equality for all — are “Stealing America” (the title of his new book) from the entrepreneurs who take the risk and the capitalists who create the wealth.
In the Q&A D’Souza was asked who he supported for president. He declined to say, mostly because he is promising to release another scathing video documentary this summer, “The Secret Life of Hillary Clinton.” He didn’t want it to be associated with any of her potential opponents.
After the standing ovation from the crowd of 500, D’Souza retreated to a smaller room for signings of his books and videos. I caught up with him there, reminisced about his Concerned Alumni days, and then let him know that I was still a progressive and disagreed with pretty much everything he just said. But, I guessed, he and I would agree that back in the 1970s and early 1980s the Princeton campus was dominated by a monolithic liberal mindset that was not healthy. I wondered if he would also agree that the political climate had become healthier with the arrival in 1985 of Professor Robert George, an engaging academician and an effective balance to the liberal faculty mindset. He did.
A 2014 article by Jeffrey Toobin in the New Yorker described George’s role on the campus: “A widely respected conservative legal philosopher, known for his opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights, George played godfather to right-leaning students on campus.”
That brings us to item 2: Does anybody think Ted Cruz is a nice person? Much has been made of a recent article, digging into Cruz’s Princeton past, in which even a former roommate denounced the guy. Toobin’s article in the New Yorker, however, mentioned another roommate, David Panton, a Jamaican who became Cruz’s debating partner and apparently liked him enough to room with Cruz at both Princeton and Harvard Law (where Panton became the second black president — after Barack Obama — of the Harvard Law Review).
That same article recalled a time when George, Cruz’s advisor for his senior thesis, felt the need to take him down a notch. The thesis was very good, but George played a trick when he handed it back to him. “I dog-eared the first page and wrote ‘C-plus’ on it, so it was the first thing he’d see,” George told Toobin. “Then inside I wrote, ‘Just kidding — A.’ I thought it might do Ted some good to wonder for a second whether he really was the smartest guy in the room.”
A similar story about Cruz circulated at a closed-door reception for Princeton alumni in New York a few weeks ago. Paul Volcker, Princeton Class of 1949, spoke about current economic conditions and also recalled a lecture he gave to a freshman economics class in the late 1980s, just after completing eight years as chairman of the Federal Reserve under presidents Carter and Reagan. Toward the end one of the freshmen raised his hand, not to ask a question but to make a statement. “I just want you to know,” he told the eminent economist, “that I disagree with everything you just said.”
The student was Ted Cruz, getting ready for his big role in “Mr. Know-It-All Goes to Washington.”