A Voice for Values


Alan L. Keyes '72 always knew he could speak to an audience, but it was not until he finished Harvard that he found his voice.

Keyes' voice resounded loudly and clearly during his bid last year for the Republican presidential nomination. While critics on the left accused him of mixing religion and politics, his conservative backers lauded him for focusing the presidential-campaign lens on the far-reaching effects of America's moral decay.

With passionate rhetoric and a fiery delivery, Keyes fought hard to distinguish himself from the rest of the Republican contenders to be the most conservative and to bring civic ideals back into public debate.

"I will not join the Clinton Democrats who worship government as their god. I will not join the Dole Republicans who worship power as their god," Keyes shouted at the Louisiana Republican convention. "I will stand where the founders of this nation stood...[with] the creator God who is the ground of justice...of all our human rights!"

While a deeply religious Catholic, Keyes maintains that his notions of justice and human rights are not restricted to the Judeo-Christian creed.

"Rights are a moral concept," Keyes explains in an interview. "The moral life is not solely a Christian thing, though it is totally in harmony with Christian beliefs."

Preserving the traditional two-parent family is fundamental to raising the moral standard in society, Keyes says. And abortion is but one of many social ills that can be, alleviated by strengthening the family, he adds.

"I noticed that [Republican leaders] I thought were good were no longer doing right in my view," Keyes says. "I saw a big assault on the pro-life plank and the moral family."

Keyes stepped into the primary fray to "make sure moral issues were addressed."

"Clinton is a charlatan, a fake, a phony, but he was better than Dole because he at least was willing to speak to the moral issues," Keyes says.

The first black to seek the Republican presidential nomination, Keyes downplays his race and emphasizes the broad appeal of values.

"Morals have nothing to do with race," Keyes says. "My campaign was about those who believe in moral authority and those who didn't."

Keyes' image as a color-blind conservative endeared the black Catholic to many white evangelical Protestants. When James Dobson, host of the syndicated conservative radio show "Focus on the Family," aired an eight-minute speech by Keyes that reached listeners across the nation, the show received a large response. According to the show's spokesperson, Paul Hetrick, the program received 10,000 letters and phone calls in response to Keyes' speech.

"The radio provides one of the better platforms for discussion of public policy," Keyes says. "So much of discussion [among politicians] degenerates into propaganda, but the debate and dialogue on radio brings people who disagree together."

Following his failed bid for the White House, Keyes returned to hosting his radio show and was recently offered a job at Fox News as a social commentator.

As an award-winning orator, the young Keyes was confident of his ability to capture audiences, but wasn't sure his speeches contained the right message. The youngest and the first black to win the American Legion's national public speaking championship, Keyes was only 16 when a synagogue asked him to prepare a reflection on the Six-Day War in 1967.

"I was scared that my speaking wasn't connected to real experience," Keyes says. "So I stopped using this gift until I had something to say, until I knew something."

Keyes' speaking ability won him the support of a small yet loyal group of followers, but he credits his educational background and professional experiences for providing the content that resonated with the taste of his supporters.

He placed his gift on hold for seven years in order to learn what to say. Faced with a choice between Cornell and Harvard, Keyes opted for Cornell because of its accelerated, six-year combined bachelor's and doctorate degree program. Hoping to obtain a Ph.D. before applying to law school and then working in government service, Keyes embarked on his short-cut plan in 1969 but ended up relishing academia so much that he transferred to Harvard, where he stayed until 1979 to complete his doctorate.

Cornell was a hotbed of controversy during Keyes' first years, and he often found himself in the thick of the action. Several gun-wielding members of the Black Student Union stormed an administration building and the National Guard had to shut down Cornell's campus to reassert authority. Keyes articulated strong opposition to the militant protest, in private, to the group and told it that he disagreed with its tactics and its ideology.

Keyes subsequently was threatened with death, according to Paul Rahe, a classmate in Cornell's Ph.D. program.

Dissatisfied with the education he was supposed to be receiving, Keyes followed his mentor Allan Bloom--later author of The Closing of the American Mind and professor of social thought at the University of Chicago--to Paris on a scholarship as Bloom's research assistant.

"Professor Bloom was a rewarding man to work for," he says. "He always challenged you and pushed you and expected great things from you. If he felt you had the talent, he'd invest time in you."

One year later, Bloom left for Canada, but Keyes wanted to return to the U.S. He transferred to Harvard in the hopes of studying under Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. '53, a scholar who shared Bloom's political inclinations.

"I chose Harvard for its people rather than for the institutions," Keyes says.

Keyes was not deeply engaged in student life as a resident of Adams House; he chose instead to devote his time to studying political philosophy.

"I believe his coming to Harvard was partly motivated by the danger he was in at Cornell from other students who didn't agree with his views--personal danger, physical," says Mansfield in an interview, who recalls Keyes as "very bright" and "very interested in politics."

Mansfield, who says Keyes matured as he went from the College to graduate school, notes that Keyes subscribed to the view that cultural changes had contributed to the rise in single-parent families and to the increase in welfare recipients, an idea championed by such conservative thinkers as Harvard government professors James Q. Wilson and Edward Banfield.

"His political theory comes from the American founding, the Declaration and the Constitution, so it's that sort of peculiar American conservatism, which begins with the Revolution and continues with the Constitution that was quite new to the political experience of republics before ours," Mansfield says.

Mansfield adds that Keyes' identity as an African-American "probably gave him greater disgust for liberalism than otherwise might have been the case. The attitude of the liberals towards blacks was dominated by their sense of guilt and not by any careful consideration of what was good either for blacks or for America, and that's probably still the case."

Drawing on his years as a teaching fellow and resident tutor in Winthrop House in 1975 and 1976, Keyes recalls the changes in higher education from the 1960s to the 1970s.

"By the late '70s, everyone was preparing for careers and everyone focused on that," Keyes laments. "In the '60s there was much more of an intellectual focus at the universities.

"Every society needs institutions that turn out generalists, not careerist, who wrestle and have an ability to wrestle with moral, political and philosophical questions," he adds. "Harvard should be one of those institutions. But I wonder if it still is anymore."

With his Harvard doctorate in hand, Keyes traveled to India as a U.S. Foreign Service officer. There he met two of the most influential women in his life: Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick and his future wife, Jocelyn.

Keyes encountered Kirkpatrick at a foreign-affairs seminar in Bombay and found himself siding with her on issues time and again. Kirkpatrick later appointed him ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, where he served from 1983 to 1985. Keyes then served for two years as assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

In 1988 and 1992, Keyes ran unsuccessfully for the Senate against Democrats in Maryland. His second attempt was derailed in part from the disclosure that Keyes had paid himself $8,500 per month from campaign contributions. The payments were legal, but apparently unprecedented in the state's political history, and Keyes had not immediately disclosed them.

In between Senatorial races, Keyes was a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute--a conservative Washington think tank--and served as president of Citizens Against Public Waste. He also substituted as an interim president of Alabama A&M University.

Keyes was born in New York City in 1951, the son of a career Army officer and a homemaker. As Army families often do, Keyes' lived a nomadic existence, wandering across the southeastern states and all the way through Italy.

"When I got to college, it was the first time I'd ever met anyone who was born and raised in the same town," Keyes says. "Moving a lot helped get me used to acquiring new friends and [adjusting] to changing circumstances. It also made me more attached to my basic family."

As a youngster, Keyes attended Catholic schools during most of his formative years. The time spent under religious discipline has shaped Keyes' views on faith and education, he says.

"[Catholic schooling] gave me a good grounding in discipline and respect, both in learning and in life," Keyes says. "I never felt a disconnect from religious life and education."

Keyes has three children and lives with his wife in Montgomery County, Md.

--George T. Hill contributed to the reporting of this article.