Fifteen Minutes: This Man Is Running For President: What Alan Keyes Learned at Harvard

"Questions, let's see, up first is up front." Alan L. Keyes '72--the arch-conservative Republican presidential candidate--is taking questions after a fiery stump speech. He's spent the past half hour attacking "the radical homosexual agenda" and condemning abortion as murder.

Starting his Q&A, Keyes can't resist the determined-looking young woman with a huge yellow 'Choice' button pinned to her chest. He knows what's coming and he doesn't think twice. Ten minutes later, he chastises the moderator of the event, who is trying to steer the microphone away from another would-be critic, a University of Wisconsin student. "Let me direct the microphone, if you don't mind," shouts Keyes, his voice a mixture of fearsome preacher and irritated muppet.

    Throughout the question and answer period, the raised hands of the gray-shirted Keyes youth minions go unnoticed as the candidate takes on all challengers. After the speech, the University of Wisconsin student approaches the candidate and tells him that the microphone-handler was deliberately trying to avoid him.

    "I know," Keyes says. But that's not his approach. "I look around to see who looks like they're intent on challenging me."

Alan Lee Keyes is an evangelical conservative. He wants your vote, but he cares more about converting you to the cause. If you waver, even slightly, he'll pounce. Leading Republican number two, Senator John McCain, recently faced Keyes' fury for daring to suggest that he enjoyed Nine Inch Nails.

    "Don't you think that as leaders we ought to be a little bit more serious about the kind of influences that are now destroying the lives of our children, and before we open our mouths, we ought to know what we're talking about?" he asked a stupefied McCain. The Senator stammered, telling Keyes he was only trying to be amusing. Keyes shot back, "I'm a father and I'm not laughing, I'm really not."

    Many who witness his wild pronouncements from the stump are left to wonder at his, to put it delicately, sense of balance.

    "If I were to lose my mind right now and pick one of you up and bash your head against the floor and kill you, would that be right?" Keyes asked his audience of ten-year-olds last week at a New Hampshire elementary school. He was looking for a "no," hoping to equate such a psychotic act to that of abortion.

    If being the silver-tongued apostle of conservatism seems like an odd calling for a man who graduated from Harvard just three years after the University Hall takeover, in the midst of revolt against God and country, well, it seemed that way back then, too. Keyes was practically run out of Cornell, where he spent the first years of his college career--a sore subject. Asked how he ended up at Harvard rather than Cornell, Keyes refers cryptically to "the context of events" surrounding the takeover of Willard Straight Hall in 1969. Is he the black student described whose life was threatened by black militants when he opposed the armed takeover, recounted in Allan Bloom's best-selling Closing of the American Mind? "Yes, that's me," says the rarely monosyllabic Keyes.

    Keyes came to Harvard on the advice of Bloom, his mentor who left Cornell in disgust himself after the takeover. By the time Keyes arrived in Cambridge--after spending a year in Paris--the heyday of activism had passed. "The whole nature of the situation had calmed down," he says. "At Harvard I mainly concentrated on my work....That's when I did my most serious work, trying to think through political life in general," adds the candidate, a government concentrator whose favorite classes were the political theory offerings of Harvey C. Mansfield '53, now Kenan Professor of Government.

    "He spoke a lot, and always very articulately. He didn't stumble or hesitate," recalls Mansfield, who was introduced to the someday-candidate through Allan Bloom. Mansfield ultimately supervised Keyes' senior thesis and, later, his doctoral dissertation. "He was quite studious and when he had free time, I think he usually spent it thinking and talking politics."

    Indeed, Keyes may be the only candidate who really didn't smoke pot, do cocaine, or, in fact, do much of anything during his college career--Keyes' 1972 yearbook entry lists not a single extracurricular activity or club. But college friend Marlo Lewis recalls not only Keyes' enthusiasm for distance running, but his love for singing opera. "He was very proficient as an opera singer, singing in churches and choirs, giving recitals--one of the nicest voices I've ever heard, a beautiful tenor," says Lewis. He could also pick out tunes on the guitar--Mansfield recalls a particular fondness for Cornell fight songs. He lived in Adams House with Bill Kristol '73, son of famed neo-conservative Irving K. and himself founder of the conservative Weekly Standard. Even in his entertainment, Keyes aimed to be a beacon of principle. He liked movies, "particularly movies that have some political or moral dimension," Lewis says. Richard III and John Wayne classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were favorites.

    While Harvard's other presidential contender--a man named Gore--buries Harvard references as deep as they go and plays up his tenuous Tennessee farming connections, Keyes plasters Harvard all over his literature. His standard introduction and self-description notes his Harvard government Ph.D. and refers to him as a "true intellectual." "It's always something that's mentioned, that he got his degrees from Harvard. It shows people he's a scholar, that he's intelligent," according to Dimitri Smierenski, the national coordinator of Students for Keyes2000. He says that Keyes likes to say he's not sure who's quicker to disown the other--Harvard or Keyes. "Just a joke," Keyes explains. But he says most conservatives forgive him for his Harvard background rather than embrace him for it. And while he comes back once in a while to visit classes and speak, Harvard, needless to say, has not offered much of a student support base.

So now Keyes is running for president. His numbers are low, way low, save his third place finish in the Iowa caucuses. If second place is the first loser, it's hard to know what to call a man who breathes a sigh of relief at coming in number three. His showing in New Hampshire paled in comparison, a more realistic marker of Keyes' stature among Republican candidates. His campaign--run on a shoestring budget, with the fewest dollars of all the major Republican contenders--is mostly about Keyes talking, whether in person (where they'll let him), in the televised debates or in the audio- and videotapes distributed by the campaign: Keyes on his radio show, Keyes making a fourth of July speech, Keyes on "Politically Incorrect," sparring with a former member of Duran Duran on the role of religion in democracy.

    The strategy seems to be that the unfiltered candidate is the campaign's best asset. And while it's not a strategy that's destined to make the Harvard alum our next president, it has won him a devoted following. Even those who would never vote for him are wowed by his oratory; a majority of respondents to a poll after the first Republican debate declared him the winner. Despite his meager funds, he finished a surprising third in the Iowa Caucuses, behind only Texas Governor George W. Bush and Forbes Magazine Publisher Steve Forbes.

    Keyes' big issues are the foundations of social conservatism--pro-life, anti-homosexual, and "pro-family." He opposes gun control and would, in his pipe-dream administration, abolish the federal income tax. He favors school prayer. Keyes stands out among similar arch-conservatives for his firebrand speaking, filled with harangues against the immoral left and punctuated with index fingers gesturing upwards, probably to Almighty God. And while these stands are boilerplate conservative--or at least boilerplate far, far right conservative--Keyes is close to unique in the party for his race talk. He is one of very few Republicans willing to argue that the party of Lincoln is still the party which best defends African-Americans. Liberals, he contends, have damaged the black community. "Instead of working with the churches and working with the institutions and working with the leadership constituted by the community itself, they started to set up a government-dominated structure and a government-dominated leadership that in fact, I believe, helped undermine the structures of moral self-sufficiency in the black community," he says.

    In the midst of his wild vociferation, Keyes tends to take the sensitive question of race a bit far. The income tax? Like slavery. Opposed to abortion? As a black person, he's particularly sensitive to the devaluation of human life, he says. Media coverage of his campaign? It's a "black out to keep the black out." Of course, liberal candidates have long likened this or that policy to slavery, leveraging that special American moral vulnerability to attack altogether unrelated pieces of legislation, as Keyes does. It's a powerful rhetorical tool, and the appeal to blacks from the party of Lincoln is too often missing. But if these arguments draw votes, they aren't coming from African-Americans. "There are certain elements within the black community who find it interesting that a black person can step forward and say these things," says Ambassador Charles M. Lichenstein, a conservative thinktanker who knew Keyes during his ambassadorial days and remains a friend. "They're fascinated by Alan. But are they really part of the constituency? No." The word on the political street is that Keyes' Iowa showing will likely be his best of the campaign--and his performance there can't have much to do with Iowa's virtually non-existent black population.

    Instead, Keyes draws mostly from the religious right--"people of a very traditionalist orientation," as Lichenstein puts it. Despite the Protestantism of conservatives in the American heartland, Keyes, a devout Catholic, still finds a passionate common ground on issues that religious conservatives see as nothing short of Biblical. "Alan deeply believes that abortion is murder," Lichenstein says. "In this sense, he and John Paul II--you would find no difference between them. Because of the depth of his belief, he could not possibly do otherwise."

    Keyes argues that the Constitution does not mandate separation of church and state. He peppers his speeches with words that leave no doubt as to his religious background. His aides introduce him as a "servant of God," and in a recent speech he referred not only to "God Almighty" and the "Creator God," but also to Living God, God's Favor, the hands of God, the authority of God, God's Will, God's Word, God's Voice and--an Alan Keyes original--"God's Smiling Face." He responds with an "amen" after a particularly pious comment from the crowd.

    Those who knew him detect an increased emphasis on religion since his days as a student and a foreign service officer, but Keyes shrugs that off. "The religious element has become more prominent in my life," he says. "But I don't think it's become more important in my politics, no. Then and now, I believe that the defining principles of my life are stated in the Declaration of Independence. Nothing has changed about that."

    "I think the reason it seems more of an emphasis these days," he adds, "is because 25 or 30 years ago, I think there was much less of a tendency to consider it unusual. We've pushed God farther and farther out of our political realm."

His supporters refer to "Ambassador Keyes," but for a man who never served as the top United States representative to any nation, the title is a bit hyperbolic. Nonetheless, his career in international diplomacy got him to wherever it is he is now. In the early 1980s, the legendary Jeane Kirkpatrick, soon to be named Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the U.N., was travelling through India with three other Americans, debating capitalism, socialism and democracy with Indian intellectuals, none of whom subscribed to philosophies even remotely resembling Reaganonmics.

    "We were outnumbered enormously in the general discussions, 40-3, in terms of positions and points of view and all that," Kirkpatrick says. "Then from the back of the room--it was all dark--there came a rather eloquent argument on our side. I couldn't imagine who it was. I felt the argument was being stated more effectively from out of the dark than I had been able to do at that stage," she says. Keyes--then a low-level foreign service officer in Bombay--became a dinner companion and a friend. When Kirkpatrick received her U.N. post, she thought of Keyes. Kirkpatrick had unusual autonomy from Reagan to handpick her underlings, and fought for the appointment even though the decision to pass over others with more experience upset some officials in the State Department. "They said they had a minorities program, and that it might be discouraging to other minorities," Kirkpatrick says. "But we worked it out."

    The Cold War was at its coldest, and Keyes the Ambassador--much like Keyes the Candidate--was an aggressive speaker. "His style was confrontational but in a rational manner," says Lichenstein, who also served as an ambassador under Reagan. "This was a period when adversarial relationships were central to our international relations." Between that ambassadorship and the beginning of his career as a presidential long shot, Keyes worked as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration. He then twice challenged an incumbent Democrat for a Maryland senate seat--yet another improbable quest. "He had no deep roots anywhere in particular," Lichenstein says. Keyes, an army brat, spent his childhood in various cities and towns across the country, wherever his father was stationed, and eventually graduated from high school in Texas. "When he began running for the senate, he had almost no ties to the state of Maryland," Lichenstein says. "Maryland is an intensely Democratic state. It almost never elects Republicans of the type like Alan."

    Most candidates might take those losses as a signal to shoot lower, but Keyes set his eyes on an even more Quixotic prize, seeking the Republican nomination in 1996, and again this year. While Keyes' strong showing in Iowa drew attention to his campaign, this man will not be your next president. His only ventures into electoral politics have been losses--rather dramatic ones in fact. And if his fire and brimstone rhetoric earns the support of some ultra-conservatives within the Republican Party, it isn't a big draw for mainstream voters. "Frankly, I wouldn't have expected him to be running for president. I've been very surprised," says Kirkpatrick, who helped introduce him to Maryland Republicans before his Senate attempts. "He doesn't have that kind of background that most people have who run for president. He hasn't held elected office."

    As an undergraduate, he had other endgames in mind than the presidency. He considered enlisting in the army. He contemplated a career in opera. Even after he went for politics, friends say they expected him to be a thinktank policy guru or a professor of political science--a job Keyes says he may eventually consider--rather than a presidential sideshow. Die-hard Keyes supporters--as such people always do--have an intricate, domino theory detailing a Keyes win: Bauer, Hatch and Forbes will drop out, and their supporters will turn to Keyes to form a solid conservative block. Then, once Bush's supporters see a conservative candidate with a substantial following, they'll question whether Bush is such a foregone conclusion and move toward Keyes. But though Keyes' third-place finish in Iowa has buoyed supporters, polls show his support running in the single digits in the rest of America. And even friends put his chances of victory at slim to nil. He's not going anywhere except back to Maryland. "I don't think he for a moment believes he's going to win the nomination," Lichenstein says. "He's not going to be a candidate for president, or the president of the United States. But then again, hardly anyone who runs is."

    At the podium, Keyes talks the same brash, victory-confident speech of the rest of the candidates. But on the telephone, he says this has all come a little unexpectedly. "The fact that I have gotten involved in this came as a surprise to me," he says. "It still does, sometimes." But Mansfield, ever the sage, says his one-time protege's presidential bid is not so unexpected. "It doesn't surprise me," Mansfield says. "I always thought he was taken by Alexander Hamilton's phrase in the Federalist Papers that love of fame is the ruling passion of the noblest minds."

    In fact, the phrase is the epigraph to a chapter of Keyes' doctoral dissertation, written on ambition and statesmanship. Writing about Hamilton, Keyes argues that popular government relies on "individuals who would rise above the current of ordinary passion." Hamilton, Keyes continued, was no advocate of patriotic moderation. Government, he wrote, "involves the disposition to apply oneself unremittingly to the service of the nation." Keyes takes the classroom to his campaign. These are not academic questions for the ambassador. The other Republican candidates are unwilling to fulfill the role of moral steward, sketched out by Hamilton. "George W. Bush...is incapable of articulating the challenge facing our country in any way. Therefore, if our party nominates him, he will lose," Keyes declares. "The challenge of our party is to say the failure of Democrats on moral stewardship deserves that the White House be taken away from them."

    But Keyes isn't going to take anything. His biggest contribution to his cause, he knows, is his argumentative presence. The nation stands to learn from a Harvard section big-mouth. "That's actually more important than winning," Keyes concedes.