Kennedy Severs Final Club Ties

Senator says he will stop paying dues to the Owl after critics claim hypocrisy

Senator Edward M. Kennedy ’54-’56 announced yesterday that he would sever his ties to an all-male final club, the Owl, after his affiliation with the exclusive Harvard student social organization drew criticism from conservatives.

Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Capps wrote in an e-mail to The Crimson last night that Kennedy made “minor” financial contributions to the Owl “around the time of his 50th reunion and last year.” She added that the senator “hasn’t been active” in the club since his college days.

The Crimson reported in May 1965 that Kennedy had been an Owl member while an undergrad. That fact came to light again last week after Kennedy lambasted Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel A. Alito, Jr. for having once joined a conservative group called Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP).

Many CAP members wanted their alma mater to remain all-male, according to a 1974 New York Times report. And a Princeton alumnus alleged in an op-ed for the Daily Princetonian student newspaper this past November that CAP opposed “the mere presence of women and minorities” at the school.

Alito listed his CAP ties on a 1985 application for a Justice Department post, though Alito subsequently said that he had “no recollection” of his membership in the group.

But Alito’s disavowal of CAP didn’t mollify Kennedy. The Democrat cited “CAP’s troubling opposition to equal educational opportunity for women, minorities, and the disabled” in a December letter to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa. And Kennedy raised the issue again at Alito’s confirmation hearings last week.

That prompted Kennedy’s conservative critics to seize upon the senator’s Owl ties  and to accuse him of hypocrisy.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh said on his broadcast, “Do you remember what the Owl Club was? Exactly what [Kennedy] was trying to make people think that CAP was at Princeton: a bunch of rich white kids who only wanted to associate with themselves.”

Television host Bill O’Reilly joined the chorus of Kennedy critics on Friday, saying on his Fox News show, “What goes around, comes around—sometimes very quickly.”

But Capps, the Kennedy spokeswoman, called the comparison between Harvard’s Owl Club and the Princeton alumni group “absurd.”

“Senator Kennedy joined Harvard’s OWL [sic] club in 1954 before women were admitted to the campus and long before they were integrated into campus life,” Capps wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “He has decided to discontinue his membership, believing that it is a mistake to continue to be affiliated.”

“No one can question Senator Kennedy’s lifelong commitment to fighting for civil rights, equality and justice,” Capps wrote.

Yesterday’s announcement didn’t bring an end to the flap over Kennedy’s final club ties.

“While we are glad Ted Kennedy has decided to get on the equality bandwagon, it’s laughable given that his revelation comes less than a week after his hypocritical attacks on Judge Alito,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

Harvard cut official ties with the final clubs in 1984 because the clubs would not agree to admit women. At the time, the University cited Title IX of the 1972 Higher Education Act, a federal law which Kennedy supported.

The Massachusetts Democrat’s Owl affiliation marked a break from the Kennedy family mold. Two of his older brothers, President John F. Kennedy ’40 and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy ’48, were members of another all-male Harvard final club, the Spee.

During his days as a student at Harvard, the youngest brother in the Kennedy clan garnered just one mention in The Crimson—a 1956 article about an inter-house debating event, according to an archive search.

The question at the debate was: “Resolved: That the Federal Government should compel the state of Alabama to grant equal educational opportunities to Negroes.” Kennedy’s Winthrop team took the negative side and won.

Final clubs played a prominent role in previous presidents’ Harvard days. Theodore Roosevelt, Class of 1880, was a member of the oldest of the final clubs, the Porcellian. But his fifth cousin Franklin Delano, Class of 1904, was blocked from joining the Porcellian when an upperclassmen “blackballed” his membership bid, according the University’s website.

Senator Charles E. Schumer ’71, D-N.Y., joined the co-ed arts and letters society Signet during his undergraduate years at Harvard, but he was never a final club member, Schumer spokesman Izzy Klein said yesterday.

And Senator Jesse F. “Jeff” Bingaman ’65, D-N.M., also was never a final club member, Bingaman spokeswoman Jude McCartin said.

A spokesman for John D. “Jay” Rockefeller IV ’61 said he did not know whether the West Virginia Democrat ever belonged to one of the secretive social groups. A spokesman for Senator David Vitter ’82 did not return a phone message inquiring whether the Louisiana Republican ever had final club ties.

According to a 2001 article from the Harvard Independent weekly newspaper, “George Washington and John Adams founded the Owl Club in 1745.” However, that seems highly unlikely, as Washington would have been 12 at the time and Adams would have been 10.

The first recorded mention of the Owl Club in The Crimson’s archives is from 1913.

Owl Club President Nick Cetrulo ’06 declined to comment on Kennedy’s ties to the organization yesterday.

“As a rule we do not report on people’s current membership status and payment status,” Cetrulo wrote in an e-mail.

The graduate board president of the Owl, Shawn Hayden, a physician, did not return two phone messages left at his Plano, Texas, home.

The Owl Club is located on 30 Holyoke St. According to the Harvard University Police Department’s online log, officers were dispatched to 30 Holyoke St. around noon on December 2 “to assist the Cambridge Fire Department in closing down the building.”

A sign posted on the clubhouse door on Dec. 9 said that Owl had been closed down “due to Fire safety problems” but would be reopened by the middle of that month.

Kennedy’s exit from the Owl raises the question of whether current Harvard undergrads with aspirations for higher office will steer clear of final clubs to prevent any damage to their planned political careers.

Joshua P. Downer ’09, who is the Harvard Republican Club’s freshman member-at-large, said: “Generally speaking, I don’t take my cues from Ted Kennedy.”

Thomas R. Benson ’09, who said he is considering a professional career in politics, wrote in an e-mail that the uproar over Kennedy’s Owl ties would not discourage him from joining a final club. “The attack on Kennedy was unmerited,” Benson wrote.

—Javier C Hernandez, Zachary M. Seward, and Natalie I. Sherman contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at hemel@fas.harvard.edu.