Meet the Presidents

Some are modest. Some boast loudly. All are dreaming an impossible dream, and doing it with a straight face. A
By Elizabeth W. Green

Some are modest. Some boast loudly. All are dreaming an impossible dream, and doing it with a straight face. A small yet high-profile set of Harvard students want to be President of the United States of America. They are not joking.

They universally possess a good, firm handshake. They are excellent at smiling, making eye contact and remembering names. Most of all, they sharet the desire to do something only 42 men and no women have ever done before, something that, in their years of eligibility, fewer than 10 more will be able to do.

If all goes according to plan, Sean W. Coughlin ’06 won’t just be president. He’ll be a record-setting president. “Coughlin 2024,” he says, trying out the name of the ticket he hopes will one day capture the nation. “I’ll be 40. That would make me the youngest president ever.”

Coughlin isn’t the only one with imaginary campaign literature already printed. FM explores Harvard’s White House-sized dreams.

If everyone in the world was put on this Earth for a reason, Oliver B. Libby '03 knows his. He knows in the same way the young William Jefferson Clinton knew. It's irrational, maybe, but it's true: Libby will be the president of this country. He just will be.

Let him explain. “It takes a certain amount of self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, to think that you could be president of the United States,” he says, “but it’s the only thing that I’ve ever thought I would do.” And he can’t imagine things any other way. Of course, Libby acknowledges that standing between him and his dream are at least a few obstacles.

Sean W. Coughlin ’06 is one. Like Libby, Coughlin believes in fate. Also like Libby, he believes his fate lies in one place. “What I am trying to be is not an average politician or an average human being,” he says. “I’m trying to be someone who is remembered, someone who makes a mark on the world, someone who makes a mark on his country.”

Christopher R. Sarokhan ’06 is another potential obstacle. Like the others, when Sarokhan dreams he dreams of houses white, of offices oval, of hails to, well, him. Since he was three years old, Sarokhan has been aiming toward realizing this dream. “Like an archer, I shoot for the sky,” he says, paraphrasing the wisdom of Machiavelli’s The Prince, which sits on the floor in his Thayer double. “I set out goals for myself that some people think are unattainable.”

If Libby can successfully overcome Coughlin and Sarokhan, there will be still more Harvard blood to spill.

Harvard students have long heard tales of presidential ambition from their classmates. Some would-be commanders-in-chief broadcast their future plans; others are modest, refusing to admit outright to visions of White House grandeur. When FM set out to meet kids who want to be president, a lot of people had a lot of names to drop. People they’d seen at the Institute of Politics, people who network like crazy, people whose prose graces the pages of the Harvard Political Review, first-years who didn’t even wait until the first month of school was over to make it clear where they’d be in 20 years. Inevitably, some people were overlooked. There are a lot more big dreamers where these came from.

Of the 15 students who were singled out as legitimate politicians on the rise, six stand out for their extraordinary ambition, as well as for their extraordinary ability to return FM’s calls. Of the six, four are first-years and five are men. Two are Democrats, three Republicans and one a Libertarian. These demographics have less to say about America’s future political landscape than they do about who is self-confident enough to admit to wanting to be president.

Amidst all the presidential ambition, there are those who consider themselves more level-headed. Sonia H. Kastner ’03, president of the College Democrats, is one. She herself has her sights set on local politics, but more than three years of political activism at Harvard has given her insight into Harvard’s political dreamers. “A lot of kids think: They’re coming out of Harvard, there are 435 representatives in Congress, they should be allowed to be one of them,” she says.

According to IBM Professor of Business and Government Roger B. Porter, who teaches a course on the American presidency (taken by Al Gore ’69 when he was an undergrad), Harvard does lend some power in the path to the highest office in the nation. “Reaching the presidency involves long odds, but having a Harvard degree doesn’t hurt,” he writes in an e-mail.

Still, a Harvard degree, according to James M. Fallows ’70, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, can only go so far in moving potential presidents closer to their goal. “I think [the Harvard name] probably—although this will be shocking to hear at Harvard—it probably matters less either way than people think,” he says.

In fact, only five graduates of Harvard College have ever made their way to the presidency. John F. Kennedy ’40 was the last. John Adams, Class of 1755, was the first. All face-the-facts realism aside, there will probably be more in America’s future (Gore in ’04?). And it is certain that several students would do almost anything to make it to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. themselves.

Watch Your Step

To listen to Daniel A. Dunay ’06 talk—to watch as he strums one hand’s fingertips against the other’s, to nod attentively as he crosses and uncrosses his legs for a few strategically inserted beats of silence—is to become a player in the young college boy’s favorite game. The game is at times about guessing, at others about appealing, still others about listening hard to what has not been said.

But even Dunay’s game face can’t stick forever. Sometimes, the first-year, who says he “tries to be calculating,” will let slip what cards are in his hand. The corners of his lips perk into a smile, and he becomes sheepish as he speaks like the politician he knows he is. “A politician tries to give as little information as possible and tries to appeal to everyone without upsetting anyone,” he says. “That probably relates to the way I’m not answering your questions blatantly.”

Of course, this quintessential politician-to-be isn’t about to admit straight out that he is on the campaign trail. “Right now,” Dunay says smoothly, “my ambition is to be a part of a legislative body. I’m not going to go forward from that,” he hesitates for a trademark beat, “at least right now.”

In his mind, though, Dunay has gone forward. In fact, he does so many a night. Tucked snugly beneath the covers in his bedroom in Straus, Dunay allows his thoughts to travel to the Senate floor, where he imagines himself, 20-some years older and wiser, delivering a brilliant speech on some key matter of policy.

The imaginative exercise in oration incorporates more senses than just the visual. As Senator Dunay of the future moves Congressional masses with mere words, Harvard College first-year Dunay moves his lips, vocal chords, and hands, going through all the motions of the legislator par excellence he hopes to become. “Lying in bed at night, I’ll be talking to myself out loud,” Dunay says. “I guess we all think about what it would be like to be able to make a speech on the floor of the Congress or to make a decision that had a big impact.”

If we all don’t think about such things, not to worry: Dunay is probably doing enough thinking to make up for the delinquent rest of us. He’s thought about how to enter into the political scene. He’s thought about how to pick the right clubs, the right classes, how to pick everything down to the right name. “The name is very important,” he explains. “Your name may not be as permanent as the size of your teeth or the size of your arms, but it’s something you have to live with.”

Deep contemplation led Dunay to a decision he can live with: He is Dan sometimes, Daniel others. “I like to be personally informal, but formal,” he says. “I don’t want to come off as stuck-up, but in the same sense, the ‘A’ [his middle initial] only works with the Daniel. It’s the practicing-your-signature mentality; you start thinking about how people are receiving you.”

While Dunay tries to be calculating, some of his peers and potential future political competitors are trying to be just the opposite. Coughlin, for instance. “Some students are under this illusion that their political career will be determined by every step they make here at Harvard,” he says. “If I don’t join the right clubs, if I don’t meet the right people, major in the right subject, then I get a late start in the game. It’s not a game to me.”

For many, though, discerning which club will prove the best platform off of which to launch a political career is a critical matter worthy of serious contemplation. Some of the choices are obvious. At the IOP, says Treasurer Josh I. Weiner ’03, one can locate “more wannabe senators than you could shake a stick at.” For those with strong partisan views, the Harvard College Democrats and the Harvard Republican Club are, according to Kastner “the best place to be” if you want to run for office. Model Congress and Model UN are both popular among everyone interviewed for this story. And, though she says many people mistakenly assume that she has serious political ambitions, Undergraduate Council President Sujean S. Lee ’03 calls the council “a good way to learn skills that are useful in a political setting.”

Sarokhan thought carefully before choosing the Harvard Republican Club, the IOP and the rugby team as his extracurricular commitments. “I’m not going to lie,” he says, “[politics] has been on my mind. The older you get, the more you think about how what you do is going to affect your future.”

At 16, Sarokhan turned that philosophy into a maxim: “Before you speak or act, ask yourself if 30 years from now you will be content to look back upon what you are about to do.” It was the beginning of a life lived according to maxim. Actually, it was the beginning of a life lived according to about 40 maxims, which are collected and tucked into a pocket of his daybook for easy access.

George Washington, first president of the United States and a source of inspiration for Sarokhan, probably didn’t have a daybook, but he did have a list of maxims to live by. Like Sarokhan, Washington scrawled his list at age 16. Sarokhan says this is a coincidence—he wrote his list before learning about Washington’s. The two lists have some parallels. While Washington’s list, which was borrowed from a collection of maxims that originated in late sixteenth-century France, includes the instruction to “Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile,” Sarokhan’s list says, “Don’t cuss.” And while Washington reminded himself to “Gaze not on the marks or blemishes of Others and ask not how they came,” Sarokhan’s list directs him to “Always remember your honor and your chivalry.”

But there’s one maxim of presidential hopeful Sarokhan’s that has no parallel on the former president’s list. Washington’s list reminds him to “Let your Recreations be Manfull not Sinfull.” Sarokhan’s says: “Keep a list of contacts.”

A Firm Handshake

“When you meet someone, you should remember that person,” Sarokhan says. “People call it networking, people call that self-serving, but I think it’s just because I like meeting people. You never know when you might need a friend.”

Despite its negative connotations, many students identify strategic networking as an activity necessary for anyone with serious political goals. According to Lindsay N. Hyde ’04, who co-chairs the Women’s Leadership Project (WLP), the networking name game is something even those without political goals should learn to play.

The WLP sees networking as a skill so essential, in fact, that at the Women’s Leadership Conference, which the WLP holds annually, a workshop taught young women essential networking skills like hand-shaking, name-dropping, and interest-advancing. “Networking—it’s difficult if you haven’t done it before,” says Hyde. “You’re essentially going up to someone and saying, ‘What can you do for me?’ How do you walk up to someone, shake their hand, and in three minutes remember their name, where they’re from and how they can help you?”

Christine A. Telyan ’04 knows how. For someone who says she tries to think about politics in “a real way,” someone who passionately refuses to play into all that slime that she believes all-too-often characterizes the field she has always known she would enter, Telyan has become remarkably skilled in the art of making connections. But she thinks there’s nothing slimy about networking. “Running for office, you have to be creative,” she says. “You have to be sensitive to what’s going on. You have to know who’s in the know.”

In order to get to know the in-the-know set, Telyan says she tries to be a go-getter. Her strategy has proven successful. She and Ceci Connolly, a senior writer at the Washington Post, hang out regularly. Once Telyan and a senior writer at The New York Times met for drinks to talk about an education reform project she was working on for a summer internship.

Perhaps more influential in getting her these connections than her ability to go-get, Telyan says, has been her association with Harvard. Future leaders need networks, she says, and “Harvard hooks you up.”

Yet some students disdain the use of Harvard as an apparatus from which to launch a political career.

Travis R. Kavulla ’06 is especially suspicious of students who try to network amongst themselves. “I don’t go up to people and shake their hands because I hope some day they’ll be really wealthy and they’ll help me,” he says. “Maybe they will remember the name Travis Kavulla in 30 years—I’d be really honored if they did remember my name,” says the politically interested first-year (who forgot his interviewer’s name by the end of their chat). “But one thing I hope they don’t do is put my name on a goddamn Rolodex and call me up in 30 years asking for money.”

Even Kavulla, though, sometimes feels he’s been bitten by the networking bug. “I feel guilty when I don’t [network] because, let’s be honest, people are paying thousands of dollars to get connections,” he says.

According to David Morehouse, who is currently deputy director of executive education at the Kennedy School of Government and who previously served as one of Gore’s senior strategic advisors during the 2000 campaign, Kavulla should feel guilty. “In politics, things work through connections,” he says. “The process of networking begins the first day you step on campus. I think it should start in high school.”

Dunay, ever on top of his game, is proud to say that he did begin his networking career in high school. As student government president, Dunay was able to meet the higher-ups in his local New Jersey political scene. “Everyone does have to start small,” he says.

And though moving from the small to the large may involve some sacrifices of integrity, Dunay says those are sacrifices he’s willing to make. “Don’t let what you see on television—that nice, smiling campaigning—don’t let yourself think it’s that easy,” he says, recalling advice a politician once gave him. “It’s a battle. It’s something good people don’t become involved in, by the very nature of the game.”

Of course, that’s a matter of opinion. But if they’re not “good” people, who are they?

The Boundless Optimism Of Your Future President(s)

Oliver Libby, for one, is color-blind. As a result, when he dresses, he does so only in black or shades of it. Libby is Jewish, though he doesn’t think that will be a political liability. Libby is from a family wealthy enough to allow him to say that, for him, the money needed to fund a campaign is “not really a concern.” Libby is from a family drenched in achievement: Two Nobel Prizes in the space of just a few generations testify to that. “The family has always tried to be the best at what it does,” he says. “So if I was going to go into politics, of course I’d go for the presidency.”

In his mind, Libby has been going for the presidency ever since, at two-and-a-half, he sat on his grandmother’s lap and asked her what war was. It’s the first moment he can remember clearly. In answer to his question, Libby’s grandmother told him the story of his great-grandfather’s service in the French army, a service that nearly landed him in a concentration camp. “Ever since, it’s been a mission of mine not to have countries broken apart by war,” Libby says. “And the best way to do that is to lead the most powerful nation in the world.”

More than any other source interviewed for this story, Libby has his foot in the front door of the political world. He tells of internship experiences that make him “a member of the intelligence community” where he has rubbed elbows with the likes of Gore, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sen. Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy ’54-’56 (D-Mass.) and Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.).

He has also never lost an election. And, thanks to his involvement with Harvard’s International Relations Council—he is its vice president—he has stood for election quite a few times. If all goes well, if all goes as he has planned, this winning streak will carry Libby into a seat in Congress by the time he’s 34. Entering Congress, becoming president, even eradicating war—for Libby, it seems no task is too formidable. “If I’m going into something,” he says, “in my mind, it will happen.”

More than any other trait, the certain brand of optimism described and comprised by Libby is apparent in all the presidential hopefuls interviewed for this story.

According to Fallows, that’s not surprising, and it’s not bad, either. He says the very same sort of optimism characterizes America’s senators as well. “Of the 100 members of the Senate, probably 95 think, ‘I should be president,’ and 60 think, ‘I will be president,’” Fallows says. “And most of them are going to be wrong.”

But despite the low chances of transforming presidential dreams, however palatable, into bona fide presidential office, Fallows says ambition can help make the dreams come true. “Almost everyone who succeeds in politics has a fair amount of ambition per se—ambition just to be something as opposed to ambition to do something with that powerful position,” he says. “Everybody who gets into politics probably has some of that raw ambition, and that’s a necessary fuel.”

If ambition is fuel, Sarokhan, who describes himself as a “loud, glory-seeking, ant-to-be-in-the-center-of-the action” kind of guy, is about ready for take-off. He’s a few parts history buff, spouting off obscurities like the exact dates that Hitler experienced bomb scares; a few parts clean-cut prep school good ol’ boy, all tucked-in polo shirts and khakis; a few parts all-American gentleman, opening doors and shaking hands and even drifting into a patriotic Southern accent despite being a New Jersey native as well as a first generation American whose parents are from Romania and Turkey. But Sarokhan, really, is 100 percent ambition.

“I’ve lived a privileged existence,” he says. “That’s lit a charge under my ass. I want to give back to this country; I want to give back to it what it’s given me.” The dream is so pervasive in his life it has even entered into his sex life. Sarokhan has been the lucky recipient of an all-American girl’s undivided attention when she, clad in an American flag and not much else, seduced him to the tune of “God Bless America.”

Harvard students are ambitious. This is not earth-shattering. But what distinguishes those with an eye on the presidency from those with an eye on stations of less grandeur is an element of what Libby perhaps unfairly terms “self-confidence bordering on arrogance,” what Sarokhan describes as “unshakable” optimism, what others might call just plain faith.

According to Dan Balz, national staff writer at the Washington Post, faith in one’s own abilities is characteristic of those who seek the nation’s highest elected office. “People who run for president have enormous self-confidence in their talents,” he says.

Telyan realizes that serving in public office is hard. She recognizes that a lot of responsibility comes with the title of public servant. “But,” she says, “I have faith in the fact that I could be a public servant. I’m a dreamer, yeah. But I try to keep my feet on the ground.” Coughlin, too, has faith in himself. This faith is especially apparent when he explains just how sure he is that he’ll one day be president. Without pausing for more than a few seconds, and certainly without dropping his intently straight-on gaze, he answers, “I’ll just say this: I’ll end up in Washington some day.”

But isn’t there something to be lost in expecting to gain too much? “Right now, my idealism is high-risk, high-reward,” Coughlin says. “I’m young. If you’re not idealistic when you’re young, there’s something wrong with you.”

By this definition, there is nothing wrong with Kavulla. “When I was 13, I thought that if I were president I’d do a great job. And it’s odd that I’ve continued to think that over the years,” he says.

The confidence in one’s ability to reach presidential office is odd, maybe deluded, but it’s also “a socially useful illusion,” according to Fallows. “Harboring the desire to be president,” he says, “necessarily implies harboring a desire to enter into the public service of politics. It’s easy to make fun of young people who say, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be president,’ because most likely they’re not. But to the extent that it gets them involved in public life, it’s better than the alternative.”

That alternative is apathy. According to a recent IOP survey, college students are increasingly disillusioned with politics. This disillusionment is a bedfellow of distrust: The survey found that 64 percent of students don’t trust the government to “do the right thing.” Another 74 percent of students believe politicians are “motivated by selfish reasons.”

Some of this skepticism resides in these presidential hopefuls. Although he hasn’t absolutely ruled out running for political office, Kavulla has seriously reevaluated his childhood fantasy. “Right now, I can never see myself being president. I don’t think I’m willing to be a soft-money whore,” he says. Later, Kavulla qualifies his dismissal. “I would run for the presidency, but I would never do anything immoral to get there,” he says. “And that’s a tall order that’s probably impossible to fulfill.”

Telyan, too, finds fault with the current political system. She plans to fund her future campaigns without succumbing to entanglements with interest groups. “I’ve always been suspicious of people who try to parse the political discussion in twain,” she says. “You need people who are beholden to no one but the issues.”

Every single one of the students interviewed for this story reject popular conceptions that their interest in politics is selfishly motivated—some with greater gusto than others.

Dunay, who identifies the opportunity to be respected by many and indebted to few as a major factor motivating his interest in holding elected office, agrees that prestige, though attractive, isn’t what it’s all about. “Yes, the game may be fun. Yes, it keeps us on our toes and building coalitions, but the main benefit of politics is the outcome,” he says. “The community can be helped, the system bettered.”

Origin of the Species

Whether either one of them knows it or not, Sean Warren Coughlin and William Jefferson Clinton have a lot in common. Just as an adolescent Clinton prophesied greatness for himself, young Coughlin believes he is fated to ascend to the highest ranks of the political hierarchy. And just as Clinton’s background was anything but moneyed, socially elite or even white-collared, Coughlin hails from an “average American family” whose roots are, he says, “very, very blue collar.” His father is a carpenter, his mother an administrative assistant. He is the first of his family to enter college.

Like the former president, Coughlin’s first and most powerful connection was made during high school. Both, as delegates in American Legion Boys Nation, a group that allows young high school boys to simulate the federal government, were able to meet the president. Clinton famously met John F. Kennedy, whose handshake Clinton found inspiring. Coughlin met President George W. Bush. The encounter changed his life.

“It’s the summer between my junior and senior years [of high school],” Coughlin describes. When he stepped up to shake the President’s hand, all he could think was, “This is the threshold: My life is before me now, what am I going to do with it? I have big dreams; I want to serve the world.”

“Sir,” Coughlin said to Bush as he put out his hand, “I only hope to serve this country as you have.”

Bush’s response, which reverberated in Coughlin’s mind long after the encounter: “Son, I’m sure you’ll do America proud.”

For Bush, though, raising the kind of money needed to launch a political campaign that could allow him to make America proud was a much less complicated ordeal than for the unconnected young Coughlin. Fundraising is undeniably a matter crucial to running a campaign. In the last presidential election, Bush raised nearly $100 million, and Gore raised about half that sum, according to Federal Election Commission receipts.

While Coughlin sees a lack of connections as his weakness, fellow student Libby knows his ability to fundraise is his strength. At the age of seven, Libby served drinks at his parents’ cocktail parties. Since then, he’s become increasingly comfortable in social circuits like those in which his parents travel. “I’m as comfortable in a suit as I am in tennis clothes,” he says.

Yet Libby’s financial head start does not necessarily put him ahead politically. “Many presidents have come from modest personal circumstances,” says Porter, who has advised Republican presidents since Gerald Ford. “Ability, drive and ambition are much more important than personal financial resources.”

One of the characteristics Fallows identifies as crucial to presidential success—up there with “personal affability” and strong analytic rigor—is “physical stamina.”

Morehouse would probably agree. To become president, even to become a presidential candidate, is essentially to give one’s life away for the cause. “What you have to go through during a presidential campaign,” says Morehouse, adviser to Gore during the 2000 campaign, “the grueling schedule, the eating as you go, the pressure—the pressure is tremendous—the pressure to perform, the pressure to think on your feet, the assaults on your character, on your family...the ridicule. When you decide to run for president, you’re putting yourself out there for anyone to sling their arrows.”

This sort of life is what the presidents-in-training have to look forward to.

Libby is aware of these challenges, but he’s not about to give up on his life-long goal. “I’m of the opinion that this is what I’ve been placed here to do,” he says. “If I back off of this, what am I here for?”

What If It Doesn’t Happen?

Losing. It’s hardly part of the everyday vernacular of the everyday Harvard student, not to mention the everyday Harvard student-going-on-U.S.-president. It is something, though, that happens. It happens to at least one out of every two people who run for office. That means that most likely all of these presidents on the rise will one day be losers, if they haven’t endured that title already. And many of them haven’t.

Morehouse is all too intimate with loss. The Gore adviser says the final verdict on Election 2000 was “the loss of a dream.”

But even after all the votes have been tallied, the reality of the decision took a while to sink in. “Before the disappointment, there is physical exhaustion, emotional exhaustion. And then you can start to feel the actual loss,” Morehouse says. “While you’re running to win, you’re also running to keep the other person from winning. So [when you lose], your ideas are gone, and the ideas that you believe are not good are being implemented every day.”

Morehouse’s advice to the as-yet-undefeated set of dreaming and scheming presidential wannabes: After you lose, pick yourself back up and run again. “You have to run again,” he insists. “You have to keep yourself politically viable and engaged and live to run another day.”

But, as Morehouse says, losing an election can feel like losing a dream. It’s likely that the bigger the dreams, the higher the Machiavellian archer aims, the harder the fall. Coughlin recognizes the risks in dreaming big. But he feels there’s a greater risk in not dreaming at all. “The end-all is not assuming political office—and then you’ve played the game, so you win,” Coughlin says. “If you’re not idealistic, if you don’t have strongly held values that you’re going to hold dear, then you may not lose a political race, but you lose in the game of life.”