Editor's Note: Upon the publication of this article on Nov. 12, 2008, a major source in the article claimed that the author of the piece had made an agreement with him that was henceforth broken. Consequently, editors at The Crimson determined that it would be appropriate to alert readers' attention to an addendum written by the author, explaining in finer detail the circumstances of the agreement she had made with her source at the time of the article's reporting.
Last February, Christopher A. Ballesteros ’12 stuck a flag pin in his lapel, walked onscreen, and informed the viewers of channel K5 that he was ready to be president. Not president of his student body—he had done that already. President of the United States of America.
It was Chris’ first talk show appearance. Andy Bumatai, a Honolulu comedian, had heard about the local kid with Oval Office dreams and invited him for a chat. With the cameras rolling, the 17-year-old settled into an armchair next to Bumatai.
“Chris, I want to ask you,” Bumatai said, leaning forward, “if you could have, by some hook or crook, run this year, would you?”
Chris didn’t hesitate. “I would have loved to,” he said. “I would have loved to combine the charisma of Barack Obama and his oratorical talents with some of the other candidates’ positions on different issues.”
Bumatai was playing it for laughs (“Oh man,” he chuckled, “at his age, I was like, ‘Do you want fries with that?’”), but Chris was serious. He spoke in long, polished sentences, occasionally flashing his white grin at the audience. Only his left arm, frozen in one position along the arm of the chair, suggested any hint of nerves.
Bumatai remembers meeting Chris for the first time. He had it all: the suit, the tie, the high-school-debate-team poise. “It’s like he was created by central casting to be the kid who wants to be president,” Bumatai said in a phone interview. Chris already had his path to the White House worked out. He was waiting to hear if he had been accepted to Harvard. After that, it would be law school, then practicing law, then running for the House or the Senate, and finally the presidency.
“When you say the House of Representatives—locally here?” Bumatai asked.
“Um, I was thinking on the national level,” Chris said. Bumatai kept clapping and guffawing at Chris’ answers, but the host’s teasing was underlaid with a sense almost of wonder. Could this kid be for real?
“I’ve actually wanted to be president since I’ve been about three years old,” Chris told Bumatai. Then he tossed back his head and laughed at the host’s response. It was a nice laugh: short, not too shrill.
“At three years old,” Bumatai said, “I wanted to be Big Bird.”
When I got into Harvard, my father told me I should watch out for the freshmen who want to be president. There were some in every class—fast-talking, glad-handing politicos who started campaigning for the Oval Office the minute they entered the Yard. Ignore them, my dad said. The people who will actually succeed in politics are smart enough to keep their ambition quiet.
I tried to avoid the presidentials at first. But the longer I spent at Harvard, the more fascinating they became. Most Harvard students are pretty ambitious. But wanting to be president—and letting people know it—that seemed like a whole different level of ambition. Maybe all these presidential kids were just a bunch of tools. But I was intrigued. Where did these guys come from? What were their motives? And did any of them actually have a shot at the White House?
A COCK-EYED OPTIMIST
Alan M. Dershowitz has been a professor at Harvard Law School since 1964, and he’s met his fair share of would-be presidents: a couple dozen from HLS, he estimates, and maybe three or four from the College.
Most of them fit the same good-looking stereotype, Dershowitz said. They were always men, of course.“Very tall, chiseled face, you know, with a lot of gravitas.” “I think people used to look at themselves in the mirror and think, ‘I look presidential.’" I had called Dershowitz to ask about Chris, who had gotten into Harvard, sure enough, and then managed to land a spot in Dershowitz’s highly selective freshman seminar on law and morality.
It hadn’t been hard to find Chris; he had a YouTube clip of his talk show interview on his Facebook profile. When I showed up at his Matthews dorm room for an interview in mid-October, I was afraid that he would be wearing a tie. Instead, Chris was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. He had a bouncy flip of black hair and an easy smile.
I thought we would beat around the bush for awhile, but Chris got right to the point. When he was three years old, he had a poster of the 42 American presidents in his bedroom. Within weeks he had memorized every name, and he was already picturing his face in the blank spot the poster had left for the 43rd president.
His mother, A. Maria Ballesteros, said she got used to explaining to friends that she and her husband weren’t forcing Chris to memorize anything. “Otherwise they’d think we were weird parents,” she said. Chris was just an unusual child.
Since his toddler years, Chris said, his prospective path to the White House has changed, but not the final goal.
“It’s a question of utility,” Chris explained. “Everyone wants to help the world. Some people say, I’m going to be a teacher, I’m going to be a doctor—obviously, fantastic professions.” But, he said, “If you have power over policy, if you make laws, if you revise laws, you can touch a lot more lives.”
I nodded at all of this. Chris spoke with incredible fluency, not an “um” or “like” in sight. He had good posture. He made eye contact. No surprise, he was continuing mock trial and speech and debate at the college level. Sitting across from him on the futon, I felt a little hunched and inarticulate.
What exactly did he want to do as president? I asked. What kinds of changes did he want to make? “A theme in the future that I’d really be honored to work on is focusing on collaboration and construction rather than deconstruction and negativity,” Chris said.
Can you be more specific? I asked. “It’s really hard to speculate” on what policies would be important twenty or thirty years down the road, when he would be eligible to run, Chris told me. “Hopefully global warming will be somewhat resolved by then, energy independence will be somewhat established.”
I had asked him earlier if he was a Democrat or a Republican, but he said he didn’t want to affiliate himself with either party. He thought it would be “premature” to “affix myself with a title that I don’t necessarily agree with,” Chris said.
Chris was such an engaging conversationalist that it was easy not to process what he was saying. “Do you always speak like this,” I asked, “or only when you’re being interviewed?”
“If you’re into arguing and debating and public speaking, then it becomes sort of second nature, I suppose,” he said. “I can tone it down.”
A few weeks ago, Chris had run for Undergraduate Council representative and lost. He had started campaigning online over the summer, which wasn’t allowed, and the UC had slapped sanctions on his campaign. In the end, he had received more last place votes than first place ones.
This is a story typical of overeager freshman politicos. Harvard students have a deep antipathy to transparent displays of ambition. Nowhere is this clearer than in UC campaigns. The last three presidents of the UC have projected a laid-back, hippie vibe. They’ve loped around campus in faded jeans, sporting stubble and shocks of long hair. Purely on image, it would be harder to get farther away from the student council Type-A suit.
Chris was upbeat about his defeat, ever, he said, the “cock-eyed optimist.” “I’m not really surprised that I lost, I lost the first three elections of my high school, too. I understand that certain things work in college, certain things don’t,” he said.
THE AUDACITY OF HOPE
The same week I interviewed Chris, I sat down with Hunter S. Gaylor, a freshman at the Harvard Extension School, who wore tasseled loafers and talked fiscal policy. “I may be a maverick,” he told me at one point.
These were 18-year-olds who were ready to become the leaders of the free world. I felt dizzy.
I asked Chris and Hunter if they had met anyone at Harvard who seemed more competent than them to be president—someone who made them feel inadequate. No, they told me. They hadn’t.
Everyone I told about the article asked me how I could bear spending so much time talking to these people. “What are you going to call your article?” my roommate asked. “The Tool Factory?” But I thought there was something refreshing about the openness of their ambition. The Harvard social code assumes that every student is wildly ambitious, but any display of ambition is seen as gauche. After three years of this, an overt bid for status—even an outrageous one—seemed kind of sweet. And these boys were so young.
Have you ever experienced a devastating setback? I asked Chris. Last year, he said, he had only made it into the top ten nationwide for speech and debate. He would never be national high school champion.
I blinked, and once again felt old. The way Chris told the story of his high school years, it sounded like the plot of “She’s All That.” He had metamorphosed from the loser who carried the Constitution of the United States in his chest pocket to senior year Homecoming King.
Why wouldn’t he think he could win the White House?
I had waded into the whirlpool of freshman ambition, but emerged unsatisfied. The freshmen would most likely mellow. I wanted to talk to an upperclassman, someone who had had time to be disillusioned—and who still thought he could be president.
Caleb L. Weatherl ’10 had been president of the Harvard Republican Club as a sophomore. He wrote occasional political pieces as a member of The Crimson’s editorial board. I had never met him, but I kept hearing his name, prefaced, as if by Homeric epithet, by “that guy who wants to be president.”
One night last spring, it even happened on the shuttle. “This kid in my tutorial, he’s really smart, he has like a 4.0, he wants to be president…” the guy next to me was saying. “Caleb Weatherl…he’s this sophomore,” the guy went on. “We’re friendly,” he added, “But we’re not friends.”
I need to meet this Caleb guy, I thought. Of course, there was a catch. The more serious Caleb’s presidential ambitions were, the less likely he would be to admit them. It was one thing for freshmen to broadcast their big dreams on their Facebook profiles. Caleb was in a whole different category. I had heard he was incredibly smooth, always on message. He was taking off his junior fall to work as a personal assistant to Karl Rove. If I wanted to meet him, I would have to fly down to DC.
Caleb came to Harvard from Midland, Texas, home of the Bush family. He was staunchly conservative—no easy task in the People’s Republic of Cambridge. But he was so convincing and so likeable, everyone kept telling me, that even his most right-wing beliefs were received with respect.
When a flame-war broke out over the Currier House e-mail list about students receiving rebates from UHS over the cost of abortions, Caleb told participants to come down to the dining hall and talk to him. About 12 people showed up. These were all admirable qualities.
But as I walked into Le Madeline, the Frenchified version of Au Bon Pain where I had agreed to meet Caleb for lunch, I steeled myself. I expected to find one of those alpha males with a Colgate smile and a chiseled jaw—the kind Dershowitz talked about, who looked in the mirror and thought, “presidential.”
To my surprise, Caleb was a stocky, soft-faced guy in a Ralph Lauren sweater and cowboy boots. My first thought was that he actually looked a little like Karl Rove.
Our handshake was clammy—maybe his fault, maybe mine. We got tomato soup and quiche and settled down to break the ice. Caleb chatted cordially in a Texas-inflected accent. He kept using words like “Absolutely!” and “Fantastic!”
He seemed very knowledgeable, very nice, very bland. Unlike the freshmen I had interviewed, he did not reek of ambition. I would not have picked him out as a guy with major political ambitions.
But there was a certain carefulness in the way he talked to me. He had prepped for our interview by reading my previous articles.
And of course, there was that small matter of his working for Karl Rove.
Along with engineering Republican victories, Karl Rove likes to collect unusual stamps. So when a particular letter arrived at Caleb’s house last June, his father immediately separated it from the other mail.
“I said, ‘I think this is from Karl Rove,’ and [Caleb’s mother] and I looked at each other and wondered ,” Steve C. Weatherl told me.
Caleb had arranged for the Republican Club to bring Karl Rove to campus that April. The high-profile speaking event had gone very smoothly, but Rove had already written Caleb a thank-you note.
When their son finally arrived home, they watched him open the letter. Caleb said that he had to read it a few times before he really understood what it was saying. Rove was looking for some additional help in Washington in the fall, and he wondered if Caleb knew anyone who might be interested in an internship.
“I think he signed it, ‘Karl,’” Caleb told me. Many Harvard students get Senate internships or work on political campaigns. But a special invitation to work closely with Bush’s former chief strategist—that’s a whole different ball game.
“It’s like winning the lottery,” said Carl Cannon, the Washington Bureau Chief for Reader’s Digest and a former fellow at the Institute of Politics.
Rove, who resigned from his position in the Bush administration in August 2007, now works as an independent lecturer and political analyst.
Caleb does research for Rove in his D.C. office, but that’s not all. He’s also Rove’s “body man,” traveling with Rove on speaking engagements to Scottsdale, Toronto or New York.
When Rove appeared on Fox News last Tuesday to analyze the election returns, Caleb was there in the studio with him. His hotel room is usually right next to Rove’s.
“You don’t, like, share a room?” I ask.
“Bunk beds?” Caleb laughs at me. “It’s not like we’re sleeping in the same bed.”
The job of being a political figure’s body man requires, first and foremost, discretion, and Caleb refuses to give me more than the vaguest outline of what he does each day. He never says where Rove’s office is located or how many people work with him in total.
When I ask, he does tell me that there is another college student in the office. But further information about his job, much less his boss, remains off-limits. All I know is that Caleb spends entire days in Rove’s company. They sit side by side in business class. When Caleb’s not doing research, he works his way through “Les Miserables.” He said Rove teases him about how little progress he’s made on the novel.
THE ANGLO CONSERVATIVE TEXAN
After lunch, Caleb and I headed towards the nearest McCain-Palin phonebank. It was the Saturday before the election, and Caleb wanted to spend the afternoon volunteering.
As we walked, Caleb told me about his summer abroad. It was his first time out of the country, and he sounded slightly apologetic for liking Europe so much.
In Paris, he celebrated his job with Rove by trying escargot. It was different, he told me. “I’m a Texan, you know, I like to eat cow.”
Caleb seems so smart and so careful about what he says that I wasn’t sure how to interpret all this down-home-boy stuff. It felt a little performative. I knew he was from Texas; he didn’t have to remind me every five minutes.
When I asked Caleb why Karl Rove chose him, he retreated into self-deprecation. “I figure he made a mistake and thought I was somebody else,” he said. Humility was one thing, I told him later, but come on.
Before I had flown to Washington, I sat down with Andrea R. Flores ’10, who was considered likely to announce her UC presidency bid just as FM was going to press.
Andrea is short, curly-haired, and surprisingly frank. The etiquette in the Harvard political scene is very much don’t ask, don’t tell, she said.
The more serious you are about a career in politics, the more that holds true—except for her. Andrea wants to be governor of New Mexico, and she said she sees no point in hiding her ambition. “I throw everyone off their game because I’m open about it,” she said.
Andrea was the only upperclassmen I could find who had made her political goals public. She was also the only woman. Hillary or not, transparent political ambition—and campus speculation about it—is still largely limited to men.
“Our freshman class on the UC, we were all incredibly intense, but no one was open about it,” Andrea told me. “I didn’t find out anyone who had real political ambitions. You’re not open and honest about it when you first meet. You ally yourself to people. It takes a year or so to reveal why they’re really doing it. We’re all doing it because we want to be senator and governor and president.”
The way she describes the UC—the intrigues, the secret meetings, the positionings and counter-positionings—it sounds like the court of the Medicis. Each interaction with a housemate in the dining hall, she told me, can be read as an attempt to solidify your political position.
Of the politically minded juniors she knows, “Caleb’s the best,” she said. “I feel like he wants to make sure there’s not a day that goes by when someone can point and say ‘There’s the failure in your political career, that’s when you got drunk, that’s when you failed a test, that’s when you weren’t nice to someone.’”
“He knows exactly what image he’s portraying: an Anglo Conservative Texan.”
If Andrea is blithely Machiavellian about Harvard politics, it’s because she knows what it’s for, she said. The campus political games are just training. Her plan is to go back to her home state and become the kind of politician who can do something about New Mexico’s high rates of domestic violence, its education system, and the power hierarchies dividing Anglos, Latinos and Native Americans.
Basically, she wants to be Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico and the first Hispanic candidate for the democratic nomination in 2008.
Halfway through my interview with Andrea, her cell phone rang. She looked at the number and answered. “Caleb Weatherl, how do you know I was going to call tonight?” she said. “I will fill you in on the UC situation. It’s not what you think.” Caleb said something on the other end of the line. “I was until today,” she said. “I know, can I call you back? Umm, like in 20 minutes?” She laughs. “Okay, go take a shower.”
Andrea told me that she jokes to Caleb that they should have “a marriage of political convenience.” “I could help him get elected in western Texas, there’s a lot of Latino women there. He could help me get elected in eastern Texas, there’s a lot of conservatives there,” she said. “We think about what kind of person you should marry,” she said, “how many kids you should have, what job you should have before you go into politics.”
It’s not that wannabe-politicians are always manipulative, Andrea said. “It’s a question, how much of it is our natural personality, and how much of it is conscious.”
DOES HE OR DOESN’T HE?
When I asked Caleb if wants to be president, he laughed and stretched out his arms uncomfortably against the back of the white leather banquette.
We were in a trendy little Georgetown restaurant, all sharp lines and arctic surfaces. Caleb had already told me that his postgraduate plan is to work in the private sector. He will always be involved in politics, he said, but maybe just as a donor or volunteer.
Many people on campus seem to think you aspire to the presidency, I told him. “That’s hilarious,” he said. “That’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Up to this point, he’d been playing with his BlackBerry under the table. Suddenly, his attention was focused.
Come on, I said. The Republican Club makes jokes about it. You must know that other students talk about you as someone who could be president.
“I think the subject has probably come up before,” he said. There must be a reason, I told him. If you don’t want to be president, why does it keep coming up? “I’m trying to think of a funny answer,” he said.
He kept shifting. “Why has the subject come up? I don’t know, Again, I’m flattered but I think that—I just don’t know how to respond to that. I’m 21 years old, you know? I’m just a small town kid.”
When we talked about the future of the Republican party, Caleb was confident and incisive. “One thing I’m really passionate about is broadening the constituency of the Republican party,” he told me.
He wants to see the party reach out to blacks and Hispanics. “Half the battle is just showing up to ask for the vote,” he said, praising John McCain’s speech to the NAACP.
He talked about the need to better articulate conservative positions on healthcare or how to use intellectual arguments to critique the Democratic position on abortion. But when we talk about what he wants out of his own future, suddenly Caleb is affirming his love for country music and telling me, “I’m just a hick from west Texas.”
BUT REALLY, WHY NOT?
When I tell him about Caleb’s “hick from west Texas” line, Alexander I. Burns ’08 chuckles and shakes his head. Alex is a friend of Caleb’s and a writer for The Politico, a Capitol Hill paper.
During the Republican National Convention this summer, Alexander and Caleb were having dinner when a NBC camera descended on Caleb. The convention had been canceled that day because of Hurricane Gustav, and an NBC reporter asked Caleb, a Republican delegate, “Are you looking forward to getting things going tomorrow and getting back to partisan politics?”
“Caleb, without missing a beat, turned to the camera and said, ‘Well, I’m not really a partisan guy, I’m just really excited about nominating a guy who’s willing to put country first.”
“It was remarkable,” Alex said. “I think it took the NBC people by surprise. I think they were not expecting a college-age delegate from Texas to be quite so smooth.” Given all that he has done, Alex tells me, he thinks it would be surprising if Caleb didn’t want to be president.
A DATE WITH HISTORY
The handful of presidential scholars I talked to agreed: announcing your presidential ambitions as an undergraduate is a bad idea. But wanting it? That was a different question.
“What JFK once said is that wanting to be president is not a normal ambition,” Carl Cannon told me.
Cannon is a journalist who has been covering the White House for the past 15 years, and he said he suspects that “almost all” the people who make it there—or even make it close—have been planning their route to the Oval Office for much of their lives. Both Bill Clinton and John Kerry were aiming for the White House early in their careers, and all their friends knew it, Cannon said.
“I’ve known John McCain all my life, and I’ve just learned that he was thinking about it early in his Naval Career,” he added. Then, of course, there’s Barack Obama’s kindergarten essay, “Why I Want to Be President.”
“There is that tension,” Cannon said. “You’ve got to have a huge ego just to even think about [being president], but if you’re not careful, people will think you’re insufferable.”
I e-mailed government professor Roger Porter, former adviser to Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, about the question of presidential ambition.
Porter teaches the popular class, Government 1540: “The American Presidency.” It meets twice a week in Harvard Hall, and the students who take it project an air of fresh-scrubbed optimism nowhere to be found in classes on, say, social theory. The guys all seem to have crew-cuts, the girls shoulder-length hair and headbands. Chris Ballesteros perches on one of windowsills and takes notes on his laptop.
In order to make it to the White House, I asked Porter, do you have to be more or less a charming egomaniac? Porter sent me back a politely worded rebuke. Ambition was not the relevant quality. “None of the three presidents for whom I worked set out, secretly or otherwise, to become president. But they were prepared for leadership when it came,” he wrote.
No one in his American Presidency class has ever approached him about wanting to be president, Porter told me. “Students can do little to control the circumstances of their lives,” he wrote. “What they can control is how they prepare themselves—intellectually, morally, and socially—for leadership.”
It was a refreshing perspective. That’s how I wanted to envision my president—like Cincinnatus, who took leadership of Rome during a crisis and then quietly returned to his plow.
Caleb was certainly preparing himself for leadership (“I love America,” he told me. “I love issues”) and maybe that was enough.
I asked Carl Cannon whether he thought Caleb might have White House dreams. Caleb had been in Cannon’s study group at the IOP, and Cannon said Caleb’s luminous smile had reminded him of Mother Teresa.
“Caleb may be a little too normal to want to be president,” Cannon told me. What do you mean by normal? I asked. “Normal,” he said, “in terms of mentally healthy.”
A QUESTION OF PROJECTION
Saying another student wants to be president is, at best, a back-handed compliment. It’s like sticking a sign to someone’s back that reads “hubris.”
When I talk to some of Caleb’s closest friends, they tell me the campus rumors about Caleb’s presidential ambitions are unfair. He’s never told them he wants to be president, and they don’t think he’s hiding anything.
“A lot of people…will say that a lot of people on campus have secret ambitions to be president,” said Colin J. Motley ’10, Caleb’s successor as president of the Harvard Republican Club.
He thinks Harvard kids from the Northeast misinterpret Caleb’s Texas good manners as smarminess. “It’s more of people trying to fit the office to Caleb than Caleb trying to fit himself to the office,” Colin said.
“People project what they want on people,” Caleb’s blockmate Derek M. Flanzraich ‘10 said.
Yes, their blocking group calls themselves the “P-Block,” for power block. “It’s an inside joke,” Derek told me.
At Harvard, it’s not easy to deny certain kinds of ambition. Just ask Matthew L. Sundquist ’09, the current president of the Undergraduate Council. Matt says that he’s planning to be a high school humanities teacher. He’s earning a teaching certificate and has done work in Boston schools.
Do people believe that his life’s ambition is to be a teacher? Not really. Show too much aptitude for politics, and it’s hard for people to imagine you doing anything else.
Caleb told me, “I have no plans to run for office.” But I kept asking the same question. There are plenty of well-spoken Harvard kids who are passionate about politics and have done an impressive job running student organizations. Why is Caleb the one so frequently identified as presidential? If it’s not his own ambition, I asked, then what is it?
Nobody could give me a good answer to this—Caleb least of all. If it was “preposterous” for a 21-year-old to talk about wanting to be president, was it preposterous simply to want it? I asked Caleb.
We were on the Mall, to the east of the Washington Monument. Is it okay just to want it? I asked. How would you respond to that? “‘I chuckle as I turn my head to look at the Capitol,’” Caleb said. And he did just that.
The Nov. 12 magazine article "Kids Who Would Be King" featured a photo spread of Caleb L. Weatherl '10 in which he is shown wearing a campaign-style button with his last name on it. That button was not real and instead was photoshopped onto a photo taken of Weatherl.