The Kirkland House government concentrator ran for president of the Harvard Republican Club on a platform that promised “to make Republicanism sexy on campus” by advocating a more moderate approach to social issues.
“Women prefer John Wayne to Tom Hanks any day,” Trager said in his candidacy speech. “I will be the John Wayne that this club so desperately needs.”
Some of Trager’s friends were skeptical of the pledge from the less-than-intimidating 5-foot-7 Queens, N.Y., native. “Eric emulates John Wayne’s heartfelt patriotism, but the resemblance ends there,” Alyssa T. Saunders ’04 writes in an e-mail. Trager first met Saunders when she was tabling for women’s groups at a Hillel when he cockily asked her, “So where’s the chauvinists’ club?”
Trager admits that this line wasn’t the best way to sell his conservatism—especially when the target of his affection had a soft-spot for feminist causes.
He has been more strategic in carving out niches for himself at Harvard. (Note: sex symbol isn’t one of them.) He’s been vice president of both Harvard Students for Israel (HSI) and Hillel. And as erstwhile Republican Club gadfly, Trager has lost an impressive five straight elections.
By contrast, from sixth grade through twelfth, Trager never lost a student government race, and by senior year he was—his principal told him—the only Republican president of a New York City public high school.
“In New York, there weren’t many Republicans, so I was the Republican,” Trager says. At Harvard, Trager felt pro-Israel voices were not being heard. “So I decided to advocate for that,” he says.
Some say he’s gone over the top in his battles with pro-Palestinian students and alums on an e-mail list run by the Harvard Initiaive for Peace and Justice (HIPJ), a campus group sharply critical of Israeli policies. The e-mail wars grew so acrimonious that HIPJ shut the list-serv down.
Last summer, Trager decided it was time to see the flip side of the Arab-Israeli coin, so he spent seven weeks in Beirut and toured nearby Muslim nations. “I really have come full circle, from the kid who was on the picket-and-protest line with every single anti-Israel group to someone who very much wants to discuss the point at issue,” Trager says.
Trager chose to keep his Judaism under wraps while in Lebanon. While getting a haircut on his second day abroad, he told the man sitting next to him—a well-educated Druze lawyer—that he was a “German-Irish Unitarian vegetarian,” the last part so that he could keep kosher without raising any eyebrows.
“German?” the lawyer said. “We love Hitler. We wish he had finished his job.”
Trager’s travels through the Arab world have shaped his post-graduation goals. “I would like to be involved in America’s push to help spread democracy throughout the Middle East,” he says. “If that Mets’ contract doesn’t come through.”
But the Big Apple’s number two baseball team isn’t the only attraction that pulls Trager toward New York: Saunders is living in the city and working in the New York district attorney’s office.
“Over the years I have observed Eric’s positions and tactics mellow, believe it or not, and become more nuanced and sensitive,” says former HSI President Josh Suskewicz ’05. “Having a girlfriend really calmed him down in a good way.”
Girlfriend? Even though the Republican Club spurned Trager’s advances, Saunders didn’t—the two have been dating for almost three years.