I had dinner with Alex Castellanos last night. He’s a CNN talking head and, more to the point, the promoter of the most vile, race-baiting political strategies since the end of Jim Crow. He made the Jesse Helms “Hands” ad, was involved with the Willie Horton campaign, and slammed Lawton Chiles for being insufficiently bloodthirsty. He is symptomatic of everything that’s wrong with American politics, everything that prevents so much as a semblance of reasoned discourse. I ate my tortellini two chairs down from him as the seven other Harvard students at the table, almost all of whom described themselves as liberal Democrats, asked him for career advice and listened with beaming smiles as he talked about joining Ronald Reagan’s 1976 primary campaign in North Carolina, a campaign that won because of the assistance of Jesse Helms’ segregationist political machine. Castellanos says he joined because he believed in “freedom”. Meanwhile, eight or so more students lined up to swallow his crap. I left before dessert.
And so it is with the Institute of Politics at Harvard. It talks a lot about leadership, about the importance of civic involvement and service and “making a difference”. Bill Purcell, the new director, spit those platitudes out faster than I could believe in his introductory speech. But no one ever talks about what kind of difference needs to be made. About the difference between valuable and destructive civic involvement. About whether the “service” of people like Douglas Feith and Paul Wolfowitz is deserving of plaudits or prison cells. Convictions, in other words, are shunned.
So as I quickly discovered, most students who love the IOP aren’t those who come to politics with an ideology or opinions about how to make the world a better place. At least, they aren’t those to whom such principles are all that important. They don’t come for the Politics, they come for the Institute. They come to hobnob with Bill Purcell, with Tom Vilsack, with Alex Castellanos. They’re not idealists, they’re not even pragmatists. They’re careerists. They’re not interested in politics for the victims of American bullets in Iraq or the 47 million uninsured or the future victims of climate change. They’re interested in politics for themselves.
The sad thing is, they just might succeed. Because they’re talking to Bill Purcell, and they’re talking to Tom Vilsack, and they’re talking to Alex Castellanos. Talking might lead to interviewing which might lead to working for which might, eventually, lead to running things. These are smart kids. They know their stuff. But they’re exactly the people I don’t want in positions of authority in American government. They’re the first people who’ll cave into, or even aid massive abuses of power of the kind we’ve seen over the past eight years. They’ll sell out, because in a way they already have. And they’re the ones who’ll have the connections to get to places where their selling out hurts people. This, suffice it to say, terrifies me.
Harvard likes to call the Institute of Politics a “living memorial” to John F. Kennedy, and I suppose that’s appropriate. A president who’s remembered for the fiscally paltry feel-good institution that is the Peace Corps and a promise about space travel can be proud of the generic civic-mindedness of the institution. But it’s curious that Harvard chooses to honor a middling alumni President given that America’s greatest president was in the class of 1904, a president who actually accomplished things and had governing principles. I guess it’s too much to ask for such virtues to be promoted by his alma mater.