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Making the Campus Safe For the 'Nice Republicans'


By Julian E. Barnes

THE CAMPUS LINE on Harry James Wilson is that he is the nicest Republican you'll ever meet.

It's not something many conservatives say, just liberals, and in many ways it is an odd label. It doesn't refer to the fact that his outlook is especially moderate; he is in some respects a Reagan Republican. Nor does it simply refer to the fact that he's a nice guy; he certainly is, but so are a lot of other conservatives and Republican partisans.

The label, it seems, has been given to him not because he is so easy to explain, but because he is so difficult.

Campus liberals have struggled over the past four years to reconcile Wilson's Reagan-style conservatism with his more downhome side, his distaste for wealthy "country club Republicans" and his honest and deep-felt concern for the poor, minorities and the disenfranchised.

Wilson is also a high profile political figure and a well-liked person, something of an anomaly on a campus dominated by both apathy and cynicism, where most campus politicos are sneered at or dismissed as happy-gladhanders. He doesn't come across as a person looking to get your vote, just someone honestly interested in getting to know you.

Manuel Varela '94, whose term as president of the campus Democrat coincided with Wilson's term as campus Republican leader, says that Wilson's popularity speaks to his political skill.

"He's not a 'nice Republican' in the sense that he is moderate," Varela says. "As a politician he has the requisite skills of connecting with people in a positive way."

But it's not just that Wilson is a better politician than others on campus. Three-year roommate Adam Taxin says Wilson's sense of self makes him different.

"He has an idea who he fulfill doesn't need to prove anything. Unlike a lot of people he didn't use campus politics to fulfill his own psychological needs," says Taxin.

Assistant Professor of Government Michael Hagen says his one-time student is truly "sincere."

"Even faculty members can tell when they are being snowed. Harry is well spoken and gregarious but I never felt he was trying to sell me something I didn't want to buy," Hagen says.

But there is no mistaking it, Wilson is a politician now and, he hopes, in the future. His campus activities have revolved around the campus Republicans and national political issues.

In addition to leading the Republican Club, Wilson founded a group in support of Desert Storm, and worked with the fellows committee and student advisory committee at the Institute of Politics. For the last year, Wilson has been working to create a Washington, D.C., political organization which would coordinate progressive, tolerant conservatives on several college campuses into an ongoing "mini-think-tank."

Between his classes and political activities, Harry has also made time to hold down jobs, working anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week to help defray his school expenses. And last fall he was also elected one of the marshals of the class of 1993.

"He's always on the go," says Hagaen. "He gives himself wholeheartedly to each of his activities in its turn."

HARRY JAMES WILSON has spent his time at Harvard trying to make the campus more welcoming to conservatives, and, whether by design or not, the staunchly liberal Harvard has become a bit more welcoming to "nice Republicans" such as himself over the past four years.

"When I was a freshman the Republican Club couldn't put up a poster without it being ripped down," Wilson says. "There is a sense that there is a greater tolerance. Students may not agree [with Republican positions], but they will listen."

Varela says that Wilson has been a great facilitator for campus Republicans and has helped carve a place for them on campus. "I don't think Harry has changed people's minds as much as he's given Republicans an opportunity to express their views," says Varela.

Taxin argues that Wilson has also been a strong leader. "I think he really energized the Republicans," says Taxin. "He really provided a sense of direction for people interested in Republican politics."

Certainly one part of being the "nice Republican" is who Wilson is not. When Wilson was elected president of the Republicans in December 1990, he succeeded Summer E. Anderson '92, a hard-line social conservative whose rhetoric on abortion, gays and other issues put off many moderate members of the club.

Anderson argued that if the club didn't "alienate anyone" than it was not doing its job. Wilson's mission couldn't have been more different. He envisioned a more inclusive Republican Club, a place for all shades of conservatism.

"It moved from being a small group of wealthy, white, Christian males to a large group with people of color, people of different creed and different socio-economic classes," Wilson says.

His vision of a wide and diverse group has, over the years, clashed with other campus conservatives who envision the campus right not as a "big tent," but as a small core group of students dedicated to a single narrow slate of ideas.

"Harry believes the Republican Club should be a big tent. His problem is the tent has gotten so big he's pushing people out of the back," says Robert K. Wasinger '94, an editor of Peninsula, the conservatives journal.

While most campus Democrats like and admire Wilson, Wasinger and other on the far right, nominally fellow Republicans, persistently accuse him of being unprincipled and insecure. Charges Wilson returns.

"They are irrational hateful people," he says. "They are not secure in their own convictions, and because of that, they feel they have to impose those views on others. They feel that if people do not accept them at face value then they are not 'true believers' or true conservatives."

Wilson says the difference between him and the "extremists" is that he wants people to question him and challenge him. Every question, theory and policy item is open to debate.

"Most people [at Harvard] aren't going to agree with me. But if I have a couple of hours with someone, I may not convince them, but I will at least make them, but I will at least make them understand my position," Wilson says.

And Wilson, who believes compromise is far better than unending political debates, is clearly open not only to changing minds but having his mind changed, an intellectual flexibility that has given the ideologically rigid campus right political ammunition.

"He's like seaweed. He goes with the flow," charges Wasinger.

In Wasinger's opinion, Wilson is just another campus gov jock waiting for the 2030 presidential race: "Harry Wilson has already started making out Christmas cards for his campaign. He is a smooth operator, very slippery."

Whether right or wrong, Wasinger is in the minority on campus. Wilson remains one of the most popular people on campus.

Steve Kalkanis, a close friend for the last four years, says he doesn't "think anyone on this campus is more principled than Harry."

Kalkanis, former vice-president of the undergraduate student council, said Wilson is discerning and thoughtful, careful to explain his position without offending people, while still remaining true to his beliefs.

"His opinions are never given off the cuff but are well thought out," says Kalkanis.

Still, even his friends and roommates admit Wilson remains a politician, acutely aware of his public perception. "Harry has a cultivated image," Taxin says. "He is very conscious of the image he projects."

Wilson makes a point of shaping his image in the campus media, quick to complain when he believes he's been misrepresented. During the Gulf War, Wilson wrote several letters to The Crimson complaining of his pro-Desert Storm group. More recently, Wilson complained that an article in Fifteen Minutes, a weekly magazine published by The Crimson, portrayed him negatively.

But Wilson's image-consciousness, Varela is quick to add, does not take away from his commitment to his ideals. "There's a tension in him. What appears about him in The Crimson is important to him... [but] it's not as if he's a George Bush Republican. He has heartfelt ideals," Varela says.

THE KEY to understanding how Harry James Wilson came to be "the nice Republican" is his family.

He grew up in a close family, which, his father James Harry Wilson says, he has grown even closer to since he's been away from home. "It's nice, I am glad of that," the elder Wilson says.

Wilson says he draws his strength and his values from his family. His father, a Greek-American, met his mother, Niki, in Greece during World War II. They married and returned to the States.

His father turned down an opportunity to attend Cornell in order to help his family start a meat market business, but once the business was on its feet, it was too late to go to college.

When Harry Wilson enrolled in Harvard, he became the first person in his family to attend college, an opportunity his parents weren't going to waste. His mother worked 50 hours a week as a sewing machine operator and his father came out of retirement to help pay the tuition.

Kalkanis says Wilson's relationship with his parents has defined the young politician's character, ambitions and outlook. "What makes Harry so caring towards others is that he has a strong sense of who he is and where he comes from," says Kalkanis. "He has a sense of priorities. His family comes first."

The elder Wilson, a soft-spoken but earnest man, says that he gives his son general encouragement, but always lets him make his own decisions, never pushing him in one direction or another.

"He's sure of himself," says James Harry Wilson. "He's always been very sensible. He's always been very mature about his decisions,"

"And," he adds, "he's always been right about things."

Wilson's identification with his Greek heritage remains strong and the Greek Orthodox Church remains an important part of his life. He returns home for the Easter holidays and attends services at the Greek Orthodox Church in Boston regularly.

Despite a strong belief in God, Wilson is careful to keep his politics and religion separate. "It means enough to him not to tinge it, not to denigrate the religion by using it in that way," says Kalkanis, who spent last Easter at the Wilson home.

Wilson has spent most of his life in Johnstown, New York, an ethnic blue-collar town of 9,000 people, located about 45 miles northwest of Albany. The Wilsons live outside the town in a rural house. Behind their house is a cow farm; to the left, a horse farm.

Life in Johnstown, Wilson recalls, was always peaceful, though he admits the town's homogeneity limited the range of his cultural experi-great place to grow up." (Though he adds that it "kinda sucked until I got a car.")

Living in Johnstown instilled in Wilson an understanding, appreciation and love for working-class America. "I grew up with people who had a lot going for themselves but who really didn't have the opportunity to move ahead," he says. "They didn't have the opportunity to maximize their gifts and I felt that fortunately I did. Whether it was strong family or good breaks, I was fortunate enough to get ahead."

It was also a heavily Republican town, and Wilson plans on entering politics as a Republican to help others have the same opportunities that were open to him.

His views are not always in line with the Republican Party platform, but rather a merger of life experience and his natural instinct to compromise.

He despises George Bush and Patrick Buchanan, calling the first incompetent, the other hateful. And he wants nothing to do with "country-club Republicans," who he says are just out to line their pockets. His heroes, rather, are Reagan, Jack Kemp and Martin Luther King, an eclectic collection which acquaintances say, "in terms of Harry," is "very sincere."

He opposes gays in the military, strongly supports equal rights for gays and acknowledges the tension between these two opinions. He is pro-life but seeks a compromise which would allow abortions for the first trimester alone.

He is critical of what he sees as Republican attempts to stir up racial animosity from the "southern strategy" to "Welfare Queens", arguing that conservatives have a particular burden to be progressive on civil rights because of their mixed record.

He opposes many affirmative action programs, all race quotas and heavily progressive taxation, although he agrees with FDR's New Deal legislation, Lyndon Johnson's initial Great Society programs and some current initiatives such as the Women, Infants and Children aid program.

Despite his sometimes divergent opinions, Wilson remains deeply loyal to the Republican Party and critical of what he perceives as basic flaws in the Democratic agenda.

"I feel the fundamental distinction between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party is that the Republicans emphasize equality of opportunity whereas the Democrats are more likely to press for equality of results," says Wilson. "I think a lot of Democrats are reluctant to admit that some people are not going to work as hard as other people--that's "a gender and sexual orientation blind statement. I just believe in the concept of a meritocracy."

HARRY JAMES WILSON is going to be a politician. That's his destiny and his personality.

For now, though, Wilson is heading to Goldman Sachs to be an investment banker, spurning a job in Washington and a Rotary fellowship in India to move to Wall Street.

While many perceive investment bankers as materialistic and venal, Wilson says his future profession gets a bad rap.

He talks about investment banking in terms of the capital it lines up to expand business and the jobs creates: "I [now] see the job of a investment banker as raising capital for a firm. A year ago, if you had asked me, I would have said, 'Oh investment banking is paper money, I never would be interested in doing that.'"

Wilson agonized a long time over the decision to become an investment banker, consulting with Kalkanis throughout about his concerns. "Nothing he does is a flip decision. Harry is not someone who wants to spend his life on Wall Street. He has noble and lofty goals. He sees Wall Street as a stepping stone," Kalkanis says.

Wilson's father didn't blink when his son changed his goal from aeronautical engineering to law and politics during his senior year in high school. And his father similarly avoided pressuring his son, when Wilson was deciding between the Rotary fellowship and Goldman Sachs.

"He always was sharp in math," his father says. "He never needed a calculator. He could do it in his head faster. I was hoping he would lean to business. But I didn't interfere."

Wilson's long term goal remains political. But he believes the ideal politician is a citizen politician.

Career office holders, he says, grow stale. Wilson wants to bring outside expertise, an understanding of the rest of the world, to the political arena. Whether he'll get that world view on Wall Street, though, remains to be scene.

ALL THE BEST POLITICIANS talk about public service and patriotism. But often, particularly with campus politicians, it is difficult to tell if they mean it.

When Wilson talks about fighting for equality of opportunity for American working class families of all races, though, he genuinely seems to mean it.

Harry James Wilson wants you to believe him. He wants you to understand him.

"My senior year [of high school] I realized whatever opportunities I had open to me I didn't have open to me so I could...gain material wealth," Wilson says. "I had it open to me so I could do the same for others who didn't have the same opportunities as I did."

Students (and reporters) have a tough time trusting campus politicians, but it has to be almost as difficult not to like Wilson. It is hard not to take what he says for the truth. He honestly wants to be a politician because he likes people, cares about them and wants to help them have the opportunity to succeed.

Cynics beware. As frightening as it may seem, Harry James Wilson is for real, and maybe the nicest Republican you'll ever meet.

'What makes Harry so caring towards others is that he has a strong sense of who he is and where he comes from.' Steve Kalkanis '93

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