A Conservative, But 'Still a Nice Guy'
Three years ago, you could count on an owlish freshman to stand up in his "Justice" class and preach the conservative line in front of 800 less-than-eager students. His audience, ranging from the disinterested to the outright hostile, frequently hissed the young libertarian when he responded to the professor's request for alternative views on the death penalty and other issues. But nearly every Tuesday and Thursday in Sanders Theater, he got up in his hallmark v-neck sweater and took on his liberal opponents.
That was Ronald J. Granieri's first year at Harvard. Since then he has moderated his tactics and his tone but has continued to poke his finger in the eyes of campus liberals. Granieri, now a senior, rose quickly to become the editor of the Salient, the monthly that is the voice of Harvard's tiny but vocal cluster of conservative students. He still has strong opinions and his outspokenness continues to irritate some classmates.
This year when the Salient's liberal rival, Perspective, listed its hated apostles of the radical right, it included Granieri along with the likes of Senator Jesse Helms and evangelist Jerry Fallwell.
But to friends, what is most striking about Granieri is that for all his combativeness, on issues ranging from homosexuality to abortion, he remains likeable. The "But he's still a nice guy" label has stuck.
"Ron and I are about as far apart politically as you can get," says Daniel A. Kaufman '89, a former member of Granieri's junior tutorial. "I decided that he is a good guy who came to the wrong conclusions."
"We keep telling him that 20 years from now, he's going to evolve and become a Democrat because he is too nice a guy to be a Republican," Kaufman says.
Granieri likes playing the iconoclast. A native of Rust-belt upstate New York, Granieri was the second of five children in a staunchly Democratic household. His roommates have included the national head of the College Democrats of America and the co-chair of the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Student Association (BGLSA). And he's known around Mather for performing a prize-winning strip tease to the tunes of Frank Sinatra--part of a pattern of behavior roommates call the "Ron Routine."
Hardly the proper image for a hardened conservative and one which would almost certainly make William F. Buckley--one of Granieri's idols--blanch.
"If I think of a stereotypical right-winger, I don't come up with Ron Granieri," says a friend.
Granieri sees his mission as dispelling notions of conservatism as the realm of fire and brimstone evangelists and goosestepping militarists. Instead, Granieri's breed of conservatism is thoroughly rooted in intellectuality. "A lot of people have never seen a conservative before and they expect horns and a tail," says Granieri.
If Granieri has emerged, at Harvard at least, as one of the leading lights of the conservative cause, his fervor is a recent development. Granieri recalls that through much of high school he remained politically apathetic. Worse yet, Granieri concedes that the actually passed out campaign buttons for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.) in 1980.
What politics he had were the product of his native Niagara Falls, New York, a largely blue collar town known less as a conservative hotbed than as a vacation site and source of gift shop kitsch. Through his father, an ardent Democrat who works in the state's department of labor, Granieri absorbed a suspicion of Republican politics. "When Ronald Reagan was elected president," says the younger Granieri, "I was under the impression it would be the end of the world. My father hated him."
Granieri points to his Democratic roots to rebut accusations that his conservatism is merely the product of upbringing. "I never liked it when I said I'm conservative and people said my parents are conservative," he says. "I used to bristle at that. Nobody asks liberal students about their parents."
Granieri's turn toward the right occurred after he won a scholarship to a Jesuit school in Buffalo and was exposed to conservative ideas for the first time. Granieri found a particular fascination with the life of Alexander Hamilton, a West Indian who through sheer smarts made his way to the North American colonies and to Columbia College. "Hamilton was the scholarship student of the American Revolution," says Granieri. Hamilton, not incidentally, also emerged as one of the most prominent conservative thinkers of the era.
Granieri's attachment to conservatism also resulted from his Catholic faith. He readily accepted Catholic positions on abortion and homosexuality and still attends mass. He remains a purist and knocks Catholic services at Harvard for their untraditional use of guitars and singing. "There are some places where it starts to drift over into vanilla religion," he says. "I like my religion straight."
By the time he graduated from high school, Granieri was fully committed to the right. He had become a registered member of the Conservatives--a New York third party--and had decided to challenge the liberal orthodoxy at Harvard rather than follow friends to other schools, such as Notre Dame, that more closely suited his temperament.
By the time he arrived in his "Justice" class freshman year, Granieri was by his own admission "ostentatiously conservative. I had a vision of myself as a lonely crusader for truth." Granieri's one-man battles won him some enemies, and occasionally, threatening late-night phone calls from angry classmates.
"He was tilting at windmills," notes roommate Christopher Ford '89. "Sometimes he tilts very well. Sometimes he tilts less well. There's a side of him that enjoys the Spartans at Thermopylae--standing against the hordes."
Though he has tempered his zealotry since then, Granieri still finds himself at the center of controversy. When Mather House erupted this spring after the alleged harassment of a gay student, Granieri was assailed by students who labeled him a homophobe. But Granieri heatedly denied that not siding with the gay student in the conflict makes him a homophobe.
To demonstrate his point, Granieri and Ford placed a blue square in his window in quiet mockery of the pink triangles which other students displayed to indicate their support for gays. "People didn't want to sit at tables with them at dinner because they were the two 'homophobes,'" says roommate Jonathan S. Miller '89.
"We didn't do it just to be provocative," says Granieri. "We did it because we didn't like the way the house was being divided between the p.c. [politically correct] and the not p.c."
Indeed, Granieri rejects the attitude taken by other campus activists--both liberal and conservative--who, he says, prefer provocation to reasoned discussion. When the Conservative Club invited South African Vice Counsel Duke Kent Brown to speak at Harvard three years ago, Granieri opposed the speech on the grounds that it was conceived less for its educational value than as a way to engage angry opponents. The speech ended in a shouting match and a blockade by some students, who were later charged with impeding the South African's freedom of speech.
Granieri's strategy has increasingly focused on conservatism as an intellectual pursuit. When Granieri returns from a Rotary Scholarship in Germany next year, he plans to attend graduate school in American history. Here again, Granieri envisions himself as a lonely crusader. He rejects the idea that conservatives should shun academia because it is irrevocably lost to liberals. Granieri is unlikely to win many friends through his intention to pursue his interest in diplomatic and military history--fields which have come under attack in recent decades by historians who have turned to social history which is held to be less elitist.
Granieri's intellect and photographic memory are already legend among his friends. When a roommate arbitrarily pulled out a book--Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice--from his shelf, Granieri was asked to recall the first word. Instead, although he had not read the book since high school, Granieri recited the first paragraph almost verbatim.
The same roommate remembers matching wits with Granieri at Trivial Pursuit during exam period. Granieri answered all the questions correctly. "The first game, I never got a turn," says Miller.
"He claims to forget things sometimes," observes Ford, a Rhodes Scholar.
The same extraordinary memory won him applause as a youth when he edified family members by reciting by memory the list of American presidents. "At times, it was like a sideshow," he recalls. "Step right up and see the smart kid.'"
That kind of celebrity has also returned under a slightly different guise during his time at Harvard. In Mather House, Granieri has won a reputation as a some-time buffoon, not immune to beckoning applause. "If it's possible for a conservative Republican to be a kind of flake, Ron is a kind of flake," says Kaufman.
Mather residents were treated to shades of Lee Atwater when Granieri stripped down to his boxer shorts during a rendition of Frank Sinatra's "All of Me" as part of a Mather Lip Sync contest. Granieri won first prize. He later took honors as the house's Most Unforgettable Character.
All of which has led Granieri to coexist peacefully with even his staunchest political opponents. His roommate for two years was Joseph H. Cice '89-'90, who has since become co-chair of the BGLSA. (While Cice's door displays stickers for the environmental group Greenpeace, a bumper sticker on Granieri's door urges support for the Contras, noting that "Every Communist they kill now is one less you'll have to face later.") Granieri says the homophobia controversy put a strain on their relationship, but that the two are still friends.
But whatever concessions he has made at the level of friendships, Granieri remains true to his cause. During a recent torrential rainstorm, Granieri found himself standing without an umbrella in front of Revolution Books, a store in Harvard Square selling the likes of Mao and Engels. Did he seek shelter in the bookstore? "I preferred to get soaked."