Grads Lead the Clinton Camp

Exiting and entering top strategists discuss their Harvard ties

Last week’s resignation of Mark J. Penn ’76 could have dealt a blow to Harvard’s presence in the political world—that is, if Hillary Clinton’s lead campaign advisor hadn’t been replaced by a fellow former resident of Matthews Hall.

Penn resigned his spot as chief campaign strategist on Sunday after revelations that he had advised the Colombian government on a trade treaty that his long-time client opposed. Early the next week, Penn was replaced by another former Crimson writer and prominent pollster, Geoffrey D. Garin ’75, who along with communications director Howard Wolfson will set the message of the faltering Clinton campaign.

Described as “the king of polls” and an “incandescent intellect” by the press, and boasting such clients as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and Bill Gates, Penn is the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, a world-class public relations firm, and president of Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates, a public opinion polling company he started while at Harvard. After helping both Bill and Hillary Clinton in their past campaigns, he served as chief strategist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign until his company’s work with the Colombian government became known.

Garin is the president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, also a leading national survey research firm. He has a similarly expansive résumé, having helped the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the AFL-CIO, and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. He also has a political history that may help the struggling Clinton campaign, having aided Virginia Governor Mark Warner, General Wesley Clark, and various senators.

While the two differed in year and residence—Garin lived in Quincy House, Penn in Leverett House—they knew each other well from working on The Crimson. Garin credits The Crimson—for which he was the political editor, and where he says he spent twelve hours a day—for providing not only many long-lasting relationships, but also an “incredibly important learning experience as important as anything else I learned in school.”

“Mark Penn already knew he wanted to be a pollster when he was working at The Crimson. I did not,” says Garin, who concentrated in Social Studies.

Garin originally planned on attending law school, but through what he calls “a series of accidents,” he became a pollster.

“I am very lucky to have a job where I’m happy to come to work everyday.”

Speaking on the phone from his office in Washington, Garin praised his boss.

“I’ve seen her up close, and I know she’s in this for all the right reasons. She has what it takes to change the country for the better,” he said, noting her intelligence and her determination to win the election.

Penn, also a Social Studies concentrator, declined to comment about the campaign, but he spoke warmly about his undergraduate years.

He praised Professor William Schneider, who taught Penn polling and now works as a CNN senior political analyst, and also said he greatly enjoyed his introductory economics class.

Penn’s interest in polling started young. He did his first poll at age 13, and has always been a fluid computer programmer, spending much time at the Science Center.

“Everybody knew I knew how to do polls,” Penn said.

He conducted the very first housing poll for The Crimson and published the results showing which upperclass Houses were popular, much to the chagrin of the administration, which preferred all Houses to appear equally appealing.

Penn said he “rarely went to class,” something he said he would change if he could attend Harvard again.

Penn said not too much has changed at Harvard since his day. He and his roommates made trips to Bartley’s Burger Cottage and many late-night runs to the Hong Kong restaurant, where he frequently ordered spare ribs.