Defusing the H-Bomb

In politics, Harvard alums frame diplomas strategically

Framing Your Diploma
Steven A Soto

What's the perfect way to frame your Harvard degree?

Over the course of a half-century at Harvard Law School, Alan M. Dershowitz has seen many former students seek elected office. In fact, he usually offers them a small campaign contribution, regardless of their political affiliation.

But one alumnus declined the offer—Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz.

Dershowitz still recalls the “humorous exchange” in which Cruz offered a playful explanation with a heavy dose of political truth.

“‘I’m not sure if this would hurt my reputation or your reputation the most,’” Dershowitz recalled Cruz telling him, because in some ways, Dershowitz has built a career as a lawyer defending liberal causes anathema to today’s Republicans.

Cruz was just one of many prominent, if reluctant, Harvard graduates in the 2012 election cycle. As both presidential candidates distanced themselves from their Harvard degrees, and Law School professor Elizabeth Warren shied away from her Cambridge connections to win a hotly contested Senate race, Harvard diplomas came off as electoral liabilities in many political theaters.

But a more sweeping view of Harvard graduates running for office, in both large and small contests around the country, reveals a much more nuanced approach to “dropping the H-bomb.” In some districts, a prestigious diploma can set a candidate apart from the crowd, and provide welcome legitimacy. In others, alumni can set up their Harvard connection as an ideological counterpoint, clarifying their own positions by rejecting their alma mater.

No matter the race, a Harvard degree will attract attention—and typically, the most successful candidates try to weave that scrutiny into a narrative that resonates with voters.

PUSHING BACK

Facing public perception of Harvard as an elitist, and often liberal, bastion of privilege, many of the most high-profile Harvard graduates in politics try to clarify their platforms by contrasting their “roots” to their Harvard education.

Cruz made headlines this February when a New Yorker article quoted from an old speech in which the senator decried Harvard Law School for having more Communists than Republicans in the faculty during the early 1990s.

The senator responded by affirming his remarks and distancing himself, at least rhetorically, from his alma mater.

“If you’re running for the Senate in Texas, you don’t run as a Harvard grad,” said Dershowitz, who remembered Cruz as a “brilliant” conservative outlier at a liberal law school. “You run as the anti-Harvard.”

Cruz has been compared to former presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who once criticized Barack Obama for spending “too much time at Harvard” during his three-year law program—despite Romney spending four years at Harvard and earning degrees from both the Law School and Business School.

“I don’t think he had any problems with his Harvard degree until the election,” said Detlev F. Vagts ’48, a Law School professor who organized Harvard’s J.D./M.B.A. program when Romney passed through it in the early 1970s.

The anti-Harvard posture cultivated by Cruz and Romney is a common one for conservative candidates who spent formative school years at the so-called “Kremlin on the Charles,” especially when those candidates return to home districts that tend to vote red.

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