Martin F. Nolan

Crimson red

Despite a liberal reputation, Harvard is home to many conservatives

By Martin F. Nolan
August 22, 2011

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If a Republican establishment once existed, it no longer does. The Tea Party has seen to that. But if educational experience forms a common bond, the GOP’s intellectual establishment is alive and well. Its zip code is 02138, home to Harvard University.

In 1961, Harvard acquired an instant reputation as liberal when a half-dozen faculty members joined President Kennedy’s New Frontier.

But for centuries, Harvard was hostile to Democrats. At its 300th birthday celebration in 1936, the audience regarded the main speaker, Franklin D. Roosevelt ’03, as “a traitor to his class.’’ Roosevelt recalled Harvard’s coolness toward fellow Democrats Grover Cleveland 50 years earlier and Andrew Jackson 100 years before.

Harvard’s influence on today’s conservatives remains strong. In 1975, former President George W. Bush received a Harvard MBA. So did presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who also received a Harvard law degree, a testament to diligence and avoiding an ancient Cambridge pastime, carousing.

Another holder of two Harvard degrees is Chief Justice John Roberts ’76, J.D. ’79. In his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, he described himself as an umpire calling balls and strikes. In seven seasons, the chief has heard barking from the Democratic dugout and blissful silence from Republicans.

But Roberts is not the most powerful conservative activist out of Harvard. That distinction belongs to Grover Norquist ’78, the son of a Polaroid executive from Weston, who arrived at Harvard in 1974, when the campus atmosphere was post-Watergate liberal, if not radical.

He majored in economics, graduating in ’78, and returned in 1981 for his MBA. He is chairman of Americans for Tax Reform, which asks candidates for federal and state offices to oppose all tax increases by signing the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.

Norquist is the poet laureate of conservatism. His motto may not echo T.S. Eliot, David McCord, Seamus Heaney, or other Harvard poets, but its message is strong and simple:

No tax, any tax

Lest you face attacks.

Norquist may be the student who 19th-century Harvard philosopher William James envisioned. “The true Harvard is the invisible Harvard in the souls of her more truth-seeking and independent and often very solitary sons,’’ James wrote.

Norquist lived in John Winthrop House, named after a 1630s immigrant. From 1930 to 1999, the Harvard “house system’’ was self-selecting. The red-brick Georgian dorms along the Charles each earned a reputation: jock house, arts house, preppy house, etc. Winthrop held a welcome mat for political outsiders.

The conservative candidate-commentator Alan Keyes ’72, PhD ’79, hired a roommate for one of his senatorial races: William Kristol ’73, PhD ’79, now editor of The Weekly Standard. Hugh Hewitt ’78, the conservative blogger, was Norquist’s classmate in Winthrop House.

“Harvard was founded by dissenters,’’ said James Bryant Conant, Harvard’s president from 1933 to 1953. When alumni fretted that too many liberals infected the faculty or the student body, Conant said, “Before two generations had passed, there was a general dissent from the first dissent. Heresy has long been in the air.’’

Harvard honors rhetoric and oratory, staples of today’s cable television. MSNBC offers articulate liberals Jonathan Alter ’79 and Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. ’76, but a rival network sports deeper crimson credentials.

Like a laurel wreath, Harvard erudition adorns the Fox News enterprise. James Murdoch, son of Rupert, attended Harvard in the early 1990s and drew cartoons for the Lampoon. (He did not graduate, but Harvard dropouts prosper in the media: Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, William Randolph Hearst.)

At Fox, Chris Wallace ’69 is the Sunday show host. Lou Dobbs ’67 has a Fox business show. A featured Fox pollster, Frank Luntz, was an Institute of Politics fellow in 1993. William Kristol is a Fox panelist.

Fox could adopt Harvard’s 100-year fight song: “Crimson in triumph flashing/’Mid the strains of victory.’’ The grand Gruyere, the biggest man on the Fox campus and its ratings champion, Bill O’Reilly, earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the Kennedy School in 1996.

As their leader encounters a spot of public relations bother in the UK, is it too late to endow Harvard with a Rupert Murdoch Chair of Fair and Balanced Diatribes? Probably, but when Fox personalities discuss elitism, they can consult a mirror to see what it looks like.

A former Globe reporter and editor, Martin F. Nolan was a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard in 2004.