The tempting road to the White House seems clear to the more political of Harvard freshmen. It starts with election to the Undergraduate Council (UC) and ends in the presidential showdown happening later this week. This perception, combined with Harvard students’ proclivity for micromanagement, might explain the fawning attention the UC booth received at the activities fair during freshman week.
Yet the life lessons learnt during a UC campaign might be less beneficial than candidates—successful or not— think. I looked on earlier this year as the competition toughened for my classmates, and as some first-year UC campaigns came to ape their Washington counterparts. Candidates, concerned with distinguishing themselves from a large pool, seemed to lose focus on what was important or relevant to the position they sought. Instead, they resorted to provocative slogans and ploys that served more to distract than to inform.
It was to be expected that every candidate would try to photoshop him or herself into a colorful flyer with a witty message, and that every eligible surface in every corner of the Yard would get its share of poster coverage. Usually these bore a catchphrase of sorts; these included lines like: “No More Tears,” “I might be a Kitty, but I’m no pussy,” and “Vote Erika. She’ll take you places.”
But this innocuous sloganeering quickly went awry. Take, for instance, one candidate’s poster, which read: “All men have it, some longer than others. The Pope never uses his. What am I? A last name. If you have a dirty mind, [this candidate] doesn’t mind.” While perhaps not every voter finds vulgarity in this appeal, surely all of us can agree that it tells us little about the candidate’s ability to lead.
Another mistake, common in student government elections, was the preponderance of outrageous promises. For instance, one candidate promised to clean up the “smelly Science Center fountain,” stop the “annoying bells” from ringing, and install swingsets in the Yard. Although many undergraduates might not object to these changes, as campaign promises they are meaningless, given the UC’s lack of say in such matters. How can the UC expect to be taken seriously if its ranks are determined by these arbitrary criteria?
Freshman hopefuls also made use of Facebook to rally supporters. They created campaign groups and events, and some candidates even took a more personal approach by “friending” every freshman in their respective constituencies. Some overzealous candidates didn’t even wait to arrive on campus, launching their online campaign in early August. As students try and make an informed choice for UC president, we can be thankful that approaches to the Presidential campaigns has been more sophisticated. This lazy brand of hyperactive self-promotion—the kind displayed by some freshman UC candidates earlier this fall—should not be rewarded.
And, finally, the last method of campaigning—and the most personal one—found candidates running around campus, knocking on every single dorm room and introducing themselves. They were hopeful that their broad smiles and cute laughs, combined with a few good ideas, might help swing a few votes over to their side. The presidential campaigns readying for this week’s vote would do well to remember that, group endorsements and professional-grade websites aside, all politics are personal, and nothing works better than pounding the pavement.
Competition did become intense earlier this fall as it is now, and students new and old can’t be blamed for trying their hardest to succeed in their activities. But we may allow the lessons of the freshman campaigns to inform our vote for president. The campaign that takes its time to develop serious and innovative ideas for the UC might not be the most glamorous or funniest one. But it is the one most deserving of our attention and our vote. After all, Washington may be a long way off, but the road starts here.
Elias A. Shaaya ’12, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Greenough Hall.