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."