Politics & Policy

A Friend in the Arena, Part I

Cruz campaigns in Barrington, N.H., February 8, 2016. (Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty)
What’s it like to have a friend run for president?

In the new issue of National Review, I have a piece about Ted Cruz. I’d like to expand on it here in Impromptus. I think that both pro-Cruz people and anti-Cruz people will find certain things of interest. Same with people in between.

Okay, here we go …

‐It’s really strange to have a friend running for president. It’s strange enough to have a friend in the U.S. Senate. There are only a hundred of them, you know. It’s the house of Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, Robert Taft …

When Ted Cruz was elected, I called up another friend, David Pryce-Jones, in London. (P-J is my fellow NR senior editor.) He went to Eton and Oxford.

“Did there come a time when your classmates began to be elected to Parliament?” I asked. “Yes,” said P-J. “Was it strange?” I asked. “Yes,” he said.

But look: When you go to Eton and Oxford, you expect your classmates to rise to the heights. To run the country. They always have.

And, no offense, Britain is a small country, compared with ours. We are a nation of more than 300 million people, “from sea to shining sea,” as Bill Buckley would say. To have a friend become a senator and run for president is … something.

‐I met Ted Cruz on the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in 2000. I had taken a leave of absence from NR to assist that campaign. This was in mid-September, for the last six or seven weeks of the campaign. (The campaign, so to speak, stretched into mid-December, but that’s a wholly different story.) Ted was a domestic-policy advisor on the campaign.

We bonded, as they say. We had many a late-night discussion at Earl Campbell’s barbecue joint and other choice spots.

Did I mention this was Texas? Austin? It was.

One of the things Cruz and I bonded over was Reagan: our admiration of. He and I were both deeply influenced by that presidency. He was in his teens; I was in my teens and twenties.

Ted’s father had been a refugee from Cuba. His son had an unusual appreciation of freedom, and an unusual detestation of tyranny.

Let me say some more about Ted’s father, and his mother. I’d like to excerpt from a column I wrote in ’09:

Ted is from an all-American family. His mother, Eleanor, was the first in her family to go to college. She earned a math degree at Rice, working her way through. His father, Rafael, was a Cuban immigrant. At age 14, he was fighting alongside Castro and the boys. At 17, he was nabbed by government forces — Batista forces — and thrown into prison. He was beaten and tortured almost to death. His father — Ted’s grandfather — bribed his way out.

Rafael bolted for America, enrolling in the University of Texas. This was 1957. He was 18, didn’t speak a word of English. He had a slide rule in his pocket — the only thing they’d let him take out of the country. And 100 dollars sewn into his underwear. His mother had put it there.

He worked like mad, learning English very quickly. And he soon started going around Austin to places like Rotary and Kiwanis, talking about the Cuban revolution and raising money for Castro. After the revolution triumphs, Castro reveals himself for what he is: and Rafael goes back to all those places, apologizing. He did not mean to mislead them.

And his sister back in Cuba joins the counterrevolutionaries, fighting against Castro. She is captured by government forces — Castroite forces. And tortured.

Let me say something blunt: Ted Cruz has no illusion whatsoever about Cuban Communism, or any other kind of Communism, or any other kind of tyranny. And that is something refreshing in an American. Would that we all had it.


‐Ted had a fancy education. He went to Princeton University, where he was a debate champion, and to Harvard Law School, where he was an editor on several publications, including the Law Review.

But I noticed something on the campaign — the campaign in 2000: He had a scrappy, outsider’s heart.

More on his background: He clerked for Judge Mike Luttig, on the Fourth Circuit. In fact, Ted made me aware of Luttig, and I came to admire this judge almost as much as Ted did. Then Ted clerked for the chief justice of the United States: William Rehnquist.

In fact, I think Ted learned to play tennis just to play with the chief. I’ll have to check with Ted on that.

An additional note on Mike Luttig: When a Supreme Court seat came open in 2005, Ted pushed for Luttig’s nomination. So did I, in my capacity as an opinion journalist (not that I had great pull). When John Roberts got the nod, we supported this nomination, of course, as all conservatives did. But our heart was with Luttig.

I wonder if George W. Bush has had second thoughts about Roberts over Luttig. Anyway …

‐In light of his education, experience, and ability, Ted could have been making millions in private practice. Instead, he was toiling on this political campaign in 2000.

“Sure!” people have said, when I’ve noted this in the past. “It’s because he wanted a leg up on his own political future!”

Okay. So? If you want to do political good — as Ted does, and as I do, and as lots of others do — it helps to get elected.

But listen: Ted was advancing ideas in which he believes. He was doing that on that campaign, and he has always done it. Seldom have I met someone so devoted to ideas.

Tell you a story. Ted was, and is, an impassioned advocate of school choice. He thinks it’s shocking — immoral — that poor kids are trapped in hopeless, violent schools. One day, he was telling me about lawyers in the opposite camp: the camp of the education establishment. (For once, I think the word “establishment” is appropriate. Or Bill Bennett’s word: “Blob.”)

“You could practically smell the sulfur coming off them,” said Ted.

I don’t have permission to tell that story. But what the hell. It’s done. (Ted can sue me!)

‐Ted was exceptionally versatile. He knew a lot about the law, of course. And about domestic policy, of course. He was a domestic-policy adviser. He had Medicare Part B and all that jazz down pat. I am still a little hazy about these things, never being able to get through a white paper. Even the abstract …

He knew a lot about economics, and was a big free-marketeer. When he was in high school, he took part in something called the Free Enterprise Institute. They read Hayek, Friedman, Bastiat, everything. Ted imbibed. And saw the reason of.

He knew a lot about foreign policy, and was a hawk. Also, he was a “social conservative.” That term is weak, but it will have to do. Ted opposed abortion, for example — and knew why.

‐This is important: Ted was amazingly free of cynicism. What do I mean by that? I mean, he really believed in America, free enterprise, and all that rah-rah stuff. Other people feel the need to roll their eyes a bit. Not Ted.

‐You may have heard that he is not well liked by the people around him. Well, I liked him — loved him. But it’s true: Some people found him too cocky, too brash, and too ambitious for their taste.

I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more patient I am with ambition — certainly if that ambition is directed to positive ends. I think of William Herndon on his onetime law partner, Lincoln: “His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.”

I also think of a kid I grew up with, Jim Harbaugh. He was cocky, brash, ambitious — and hugely talented. Ted would remind me of him. I loved Jim, though he was not universally appreciated. Certainly he was envied. He went on to be a quarterback in the NFL, and, after that, one of the most successful football coaches in America — at both the college and the pro levels.

But back to the Bush campaign. You know who else liked Ted? Loved him? Heidi Nelson, a bright economic-policy staffer. And a beautiful California blonde. Like Ted, she had a can-do spirit.

She had done some of her growing up abroad, as the daughter of missionaries. She hiked and trekked all over. She was sporty, fearless. Confident, capable.

One tiny example: She wouldn’t dream of water-skiing on two skis. That was for beginners, maybe. One ski would do (although I suspect she could have used her heels, too).

She and Ted were an excellent match. They were married the next year (2001).

Ted took his wedding party to the Reagan ranch. There, we gazed on the great man’s GE appliances, horse saddles, and so on. It was a totally Ted-like outing. We were in Reaganite heaven.

Had enough for one day? Thanks for joining me, and I’ll see you tomorrow for Part II.

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