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Harvard's Conservative Conscience

JOHN APPELBAUM Vero Beach, FL Government Kirkland House

By C.r. Mcfadden

While it's one more year until John J. Appelbaum '97 becomes a United States citizen, he's been a patriot since his first days on American soil.

And he was a conservative before it was cool.

The Kirkland House senior and his mother, Valeria Sinyavaskaya, emigrated to Jacksonville, Fla., from the former Soviet Union in 1991, seeking refuge from the communist nation whose government "told you what to think, what to wear, where to work and how to live each moment of your life," Appelbaum says.

"I saw it all up close--what happens when a government gets too much power," Appelbaum says as he closes a menu at the Grafton Street Pub and orders the traditional American brunch of eggs, bacon and hash browns. "It can't solve everything, and it only makes most things worse."

An auxiliary staffer of Peninsula, a conservative campus magazine, and two-term treasurer of the Undergraduate Council who twice sought the council's presidency, Appelbaum has made his mark at Harvard jousting with campus liberals.

"Basically I'm unhappy with the way the liberal establishment is running the government. Liberty means the freedom to do whatever you choose. We're losing all those freedoms," Appelbaum says during a Sunday afternoon interview. "I believe in the Constitution--what's really there. If James Madison knew what the Constitution was being used for, he'd roll in his grave."

He's made his share of enemies. Council President Lamelle D. Rawlins '99, whose activist agenda Appelbaum regularly opposed, calls him "a foul ball," and Crimson editorial chair Joshua A. Kaufman '98 once described him as "a stupid man" with "no ideas."

Appelbaum retorts that most campus liberals "have no idea what lifes like in the real world. They're just trotting out stuff they're hearing from Harvard professors."

Yes, Appelbaum is socially and fiscally conservative. No, he doesn't apologize for it.

"Kaufman slamming me was the culmination of my four years," he says. "He compared the Peninsula staff to Nazis and fascists. That's a damn lie; I'm Jewish myself. That kind of criticism just means I'm making sense. I'm sticking up for what middle America believes."

Appelbaum's conservative roots stretch back to Novosibirsk, Siberia, where he spent his first 16 years of life. It is a city of about one million, sustained by a manufacturing base that relies on government defense contracts. The chilly arctic air that keeps temperatures below freezing eight months of the year accompanied ominous political winds swirling about the Appelbaum family.

"I saw the lies, the deceit, the corruption. Everything was rationed, first meat and butter but then more things," Appelbaum says.

"There was a saying," he says. "Are you using soap to wash your hands? Then you're not getting sugar with your tea."

"The bureaucrats lived and ate better than everyone else. We had to swear loyalty oaths to the state, call Lenin 'Grandpa Lenin,'" he says. "One year all the history exams were canceled because Gorbachev had just come to power and nobody knew what the official version was anymore."

John's father, Jacob Appelbaum, was a physicist in a government laboratory, and his mother toured the nation as a professional ballerina.

But each day was full of anxiety because neither of them joined the Communist Party.

Jacob was fired in 1987 and fled to the United States. John and his mother managed to obtain passports four years later. Their journey was nerve-wracking, as they hid visas in their backpacks and prayed they wouldn't be detained by border patrol officers. They reunited with Jacob after renouncing their Soviet citizenship upon arriving in New York City.

John celebrates that day--February 28--each year with some stiff shots (vodka, of course) among friends. "It was my happiest day ever. I love being in America," he says. "Everything people say is true. We have more rights than anywhere else in the world, there is an abundance of everything, people smile more, they're more outgoing, the women are beautiful. The first time I walked into a supermarket, I almost died."

The Appelbaums settled in Jacksonville, where Jacob taught at a community college. His father now manages his own import/export business, and they relocated to Vero Beach, Fla., after John's sophomore year at Harvard.

John attended a public high school, graduating in the top 20 of his class of 331 students. He lettered in swimming and served as president of the international club and treasurer of the rotary club while also holding a night-shift position at Dunkin' Donuts.

The first person from his school in recent memory to attend an Ivy League school, Appelbaum admits he "studied a lot."

Appelbaum spoke no English when he arrived in America. "I didn't know how to ask my way to the restroom," he says, but a 6-week summer English program at Cornell University gave hima lot of confidence.

Watching television, especially hits such as "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Jake and the Fatman," helped him assimilate into northern Florida's teenage lifestyle. The Siberian native, who still favors flannels and sweat-shirts, also fell in love with "Point Break," an action movie whose main characters are bank robbers and avid surfers.

"I took up surfing because of 'Point Break', says Appelbaum, who also rowed crew for two years. One of his first-year roommates adds: "He talked about that movie so often, we bought him a copy. It kept him from talking politics for a little while."

His politics and political views were shaped both by his own history and from yet another television broadcast: "The Rush Limbaugh Show."

"I thought he made a lot of sense," Appelbaum says. "A friend of mine said he was a horrible person, a conservative, all that. I said, 'Well I guess I'm a conservative because I agree with him.'"

Appelbaum has been interested in politics ever since. He plans to attend law school after spending some time working in the banking industry in Florida, then launch a political career. But while he has real-life political ambitions, hes been only an inactive member of the Harvard Republican Club. Instead he's devoted his attention to student government, where he says he can have more of an impact on campus.

Appelbaum believes in limited government, and he points to the Undergraduate Council as an example of a legislative group out of control.

During the past two years, the student council has begun speaking out on social issues, ranging from the rights of strawberry workers in California to Harvard's investment policies in foreign nations. It also has co-sponsored events hosted by multicultural groups while decreasing funding for campus-wide social events and concerts.

One of its most controversial decisions this year was to challenge Memorial Church's policy on same-sex blessing ceremonies.

Rev. Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer professor of Christian morals, refuses to perform or permit same-sex blessing ceremonies within Memorial Church. Earlier this year, the council passed a resolution asking the University to reverse the position. Appelbaum argued the council has no business interfering with "laws of the house of God."

"Here is the Undergraduate Council, most of them don't even go to church, trying to dictate policy on marriages. What happens too often is that people try to address issues they don't know anything about. They should focus on small, practical issues. Instead they're just floating in the clouds," says Appelbaum, whose government thesis, titled "The Imperial Judiciary," takes issue with the Supreme Court's increasingly activist bent. "Government is a faithful servant and a fearful master."

Some have criticized Appelbaum's occasionally harsh rhetoric (he angered some council members by refusing to refer to a transgendered individual as "he" rather than "she" and once vowed to "tear apart with my bare hands" those seeking to remove ROTC graduation ceremonies from campus). "That type of debate," Rawlins says, "goes to show how insensitive he and those on the right can be to those they disagree with."

One memorable moment was in 1996, when former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara spoke at the Institute of Politics, saying he felt as early as 1965 that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable effort. Appelbaum borrowed a hammer from his roommate, bought some plywood and constructed a sign reading: "Vietnam: Our Cause Was Just."

He carried the sign and the flag--at half-mast--with him as he marched outside the speech.

"It was the patriotic thing to do," he recalls. "Everyone was pitying McNamara for his personal agony. People forgot about the soldiers who fought and died. You gotta stand up for what's right."

Those types of actions, many feel, are what set Appelbaum apart from other budding politicians. "John has principles, and he isn't a phony like some people here," says council member Tally Zingher '98. "He has some fun. He takes his beliefs seriously, but he comes off in a way nobody else can."

Appelbaum says he can live with the council's attempts to change the attitudes of students on various social issues. After all, he says, thats what the legislative process is all about. Reciting passages from The Federalist Papers, Appelbaum notes that rigorous discussions among opposing parties help refine debate and enhance the deliberative capacities of all citizens.

What the National Rifle Association member can't stand are attempts to repeal his right to bear arms.

During his junior year, Appelbaum made two 90-minute trips to suburban Burlington. After riding the subway and a bus--and walking several miles in each direction to a hunting club--he received 20 hours of training in handgun safety and maintenance. He fired some 30 rounds with a shotgun en route to receiving NRA certification.

Appelbaum offers a spirited defense of the Second Amendment; invoking speeches by great American statespeople to buttress his position.

He points to Madison, Washington, Edmund Burke, John C. Calhoun and Ronald Reagan as political figures he admires.

"I think every self-respecting man should have a basic understanding of how to protect himself or protect his home," says Appelbaum, who keeps a .22-caliber rifle in his Florida home. "It's a basic skill, like learning to play golf or tennis.

"But around here, if you mention the Second Amendment, you're a radical nut. Well, then George Washington was a radical nut. He's on record saying guns are the bulwark of liberty."

To Appelbaum, owning a gun is part of being an American. Perhaps he feels a firearm demonstrates the most powerful exercise of the freedom: it symbolizes a means of protecting oneself against a tyrannical government. Guns, he points out, were outlawed in the former Soviet Union.

Although conservatives are in the minority at Harvard, they hold a majority of seats in both houses of Congress, state legislatures and governorships. The Republican Revolution swept scores of conservatives into office two years ago. Though President Clinton won re-election last November, so did many of the conservatives.

The people have spoken, and they will speak again. Appelbaum will be there, trying to keep them on the right side of the issues.

"I'm going to be there as a conservative. I'm going to be there as a patriot," he says. "If I get beat, I get beat. If anything, Harvard sharpened my convictions. I'm right."CrimsonMelissa K. CrockerJOHN J. APPELBAUM '97 is proud to be conservative.

"Here is the Undergraduate Council, most of them don't even go to church, trying to dictate policy on marriages. What happens too often is that people try to address issues they don't know anything about. They should focus on small, practical issues. Instead they're just floating in the clouds," says Appelbaum, whose government thesis, titled "The Imperial Judiciary," takes issue with the Supreme Court's increasingly activist bent. "Government is a faithful servant and a fearful master."

Some have criticized Appelbaum's occasionally harsh rhetoric (he angered some council members by refusing to refer to a transgendered individual as "he" rather than "she" and once vowed to "tear apart with my bare hands" those seeking to remove ROTC graduation ceremonies from campus). "That type of debate," Rawlins says, "goes to show how insensitive he and those on the right can be to those they disagree with."

One memorable moment was in 1996, when former secretary of defense Robert S. McNamara spoke at the Institute of Politics, saying he felt as early as 1965 that the Vietnam War was an unwinnable effort. Appelbaum borrowed a hammer from his roommate, bought some plywood and constructed a sign reading: "Vietnam: Our Cause Was Just."

He carried the sign and the flag--at half-mast--with him as he marched outside the speech.

"It was the patriotic thing to do," he recalls. "Everyone was pitying McNamara for his personal agony. People forgot about the soldiers who fought and died. You gotta stand up for what's right."

Those types of actions, many feel, are what set Appelbaum apart from other budding politicians. "John has principles, and he isn't a phony like some people here," says council member Tally Zingher '98. "He has some fun. He takes his beliefs seriously, but he comes off in a way nobody else can."

Appelbaum says he can live with the council's attempts to change the attitudes of students on various social issues. After all, he says, thats what the legislative process is all about. Reciting passages from The Federalist Papers, Appelbaum notes that rigorous discussions among opposing parties help refine debate and enhance the deliberative capacities of all citizens.

What the National Rifle Association member can't stand are attempts to repeal his right to bear arms.

During his junior year, Appelbaum made two 90-minute trips to suburban Burlington. After riding the subway and a bus--and walking several miles in each direction to a hunting club--he received 20 hours of training in handgun safety and maintenance. He fired some 30 rounds with a shotgun en route to receiving NRA certification.

Appelbaum offers a spirited defense of the Second Amendment; invoking speeches by great American statespeople to buttress his position.

He points to Madison, Washington, Edmund Burke, John C. Calhoun and Ronald Reagan as political figures he admires.

"I think every self-respecting man should have a basic understanding of how to protect himself or protect his home," says Appelbaum, who keeps a .22-caliber rifle in his Florida home. "It's a basic skill, like learning to play golf or tennis.

"But around here, if you mention the Second Amendment, you're a radical nut. Well, then George Washington was a radical nut. He's on record saying guns are the bulwark of liberty."

To Appelbaum, owning a gun is part of being an American. Perhaps he feels a firearm demonstrates the most powerful exercise of the freedom: it symbolizes a means of protecting oneself against a tyrannical government. Guns, he points out, were outlawed in the former Soviet Union.

Although conservatives are in the minority at Harvard, they hold a majority of seats in both houses of Congress, state legislatures and governorships. The Republican Revolution swept scores of conservatives into office two years ago. Though President Clinton won re-election last November, so did many of the conservatives.

The people have spoken, and they will speak again. Appelbaum will be there, trying to keep them on the right side of the issues.

"I'm going to be there as a conservative. I'm going to be there as a patriot," he says. "If I get beat, I get beat. If anything, Harvard sharpened my convictions. I'm right."CrimsonMelissa K. CrockerJOHN J. APPELBAUM '97 is proud to be conservative.

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