Politics & Policy

Conservative Concerns

Then and now.

As a Princeton senior in 1984, I met the editor of Prospect, a magazine published by a conservative group called the Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP). He was a minority–an Indian immigrant named Dinesh D’Souza. The following year, his ex-Dartmouth College colleague, Laura Ingraham, succeeded him as editor. Fast forward 22 years to this week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room where committee Democrats declared Supreme Court nominee Sam Alito a bigot. Their evidence? In 1985 he was a member of CAP, an organization “opposed to the admission of women and minorities.”

How did an organization that gave its top jobs to a minority and a woman oppose minorities and women? “To say that Prospect was against minorities and co-ed education is absurd,” says D’Souza, now a Hoover Institution fellow and author of Illiberal Education, a groundbreaking book on academic political correctness.

With charges as flimsy as these, it is no wonder that the Democrats’ attack appears to lack legs. And video of Ted Kennedy driving Alito’s wife to tears revolted viewers, much as Kennedy’s predecessor, Joe McCarthy, embarrassed himself during televised hearings. But the swift conservative reaction to Kennedy’s tactics probably would not have come about without the battle-hardened troops borne of ideological battles similar to those between Princeton and CAP in the early 1980s.

Judiciary Committee Democrats’ smear of Alito was as ugly as it was predictable. Stymied by Alito’s legal resume, Kennedy pulled out his poster boards, Joe Biden put on his Princeton cap, and Democrats played McCarthy for the cameras–tarring Alito as a card-carrying bigot based on articles contained in a magazine he didn’t work for, but merely subscribed to. Assured of support from Washington’s liberal media, Democrats hoped for a replay of the “Coke can” revelation that nearly destroyed Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Like Washington’s press corps, Ivy League campuses in the early 1980s were largely monolithic liberal institutions. CAP was a voice for many conservative issues in a university environment hostile to Reagan-era reforms.

True, opposition to Princeton’s coeducation was the motivating factor in CAP’s 1972 creation. But CAP soon became a refuge for conservatives on a campus radicalized by Vietnam. Under President William Bowen, an outspoken liberal, campus activism was reenergized in the ’80s, protesting Reagan’s military buildup, affirmative action policies, and Navy and Air Force ROTC. In short, there were many reasons for conservative alums like Alito to subscribe to an organization like CAP.

To raise its profile, Prospect hired young graduates from The Dartmouth Review, a student publication giving establishment liberals heartburn at Dartmouth College. “Prospect had been around a while,” says Dinesh, “but it was incidental, inconsistent. (Dartmouth Review grads) had a mixture of skills to bring to the magazine.”

That skill set included sophomoric tendencies, which often got the young staff unwanted attention. Critics of the publication were quick to pounce on items like this shot at Sally Frank, a shrill feminist who sued to gain entrance to a male campus eating club: “Marilyn McCuster, who successfully won a sex discrimination suit compelling a mine company to hire her, became the first woman to be killed in a mining accident. Sally Frank, take note.”

In poor taste, to be sure. And then there is this line from “In Defense of Elitism,” plastered on Kennedy’s poster boards this week: “People nowadays just don’t seem to know their place. Everywhere one turns, blacks and Hispanics are demanding jobs simply because they’re black and Hispanic, and homosexuals are demanding that government vouchsafe them the right to bear children.”

“I think it was intended as satire,” says D’Souza, who can’t recall the exact article, even as he winces at its ham-handedness. It does sound just like the strained satire Prospect’s student writers often engaged in. And it would be just like politically-correct, feverishly anti-Alito Democrat staffers to take it out of context.

“The culture of Princeton was liberal,” says D’Souza. “Just like the three broadcast networks today. We were creating a sort of rebel conservatism to challenge the liberal establishment, just as Fox News is doing today.”

And in an odd twist of fate, the new media rebels were now meeting the old Princeton establishment in the Alito hearings.

A key Democrat witness for the CAP gambit would be Stephen R. Dujack, a liberal former managing editor of Prospect’s bête noir, the Princeton Alumni Weekly.I met Steve at Princeton as well, and we have become close friends in the years since. Steve had been one of CAP’s most ardent critics in the ’80s, exposing its more childish ploys. Now he was poised to testify to “the disturbing conclusions we can draw about Judge Alito’s character by his association with CAP.”

Washington’s liberal media began to circle, but the media landscape has changed since Thomas’s hearings in 1991. Now the Right has its own powerful voices. Democrats withdrew Steve’s name after the blogosphere and talk-radio highlighted 2003 Los Angeles Times column in which Dujack, a vegetarian, compared killing animals for food to “creating gas chambers à la Hitler and concentration camps à la Stalin.” Dujack was defending the views of his Nobel laureate grandfather, Isaac Bashevis Singer, a Jewish Holocaust escapee–but as with Prospect’s satire, this context is lost in the hothouse Kennedy’s Democrats have created.

Neither Prospect nor Steve Dujack should have been dragged into a debate that belongs on a higher level: a discussion of constitutional law. But as long as McCarthyites like Ted Kennedy exist, conservative jurists like Sam Alito can be thankful that there are rebel journalists out there.

Henry Payne is a freelance writer in Detroit, and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.


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