On a November night in 1964—just as the sun was rising outside Leverett’s McKinlock Hall—the fire alarm blared, and William P. Docken ’67 went to check on his roommate, Gregory B. Craig ’67. Surprisingly, Craig was still lying in the bottom bunk.
“Greg has the alarm clock in his hand, banging the shit out of it trying to make it stop,” says Docken, “This is the guy who President Obama’s gonna wake up in the middle of the night when he’s in the middle of a crisis.”
Though he may have appeared to be lethargic and confused in this particular episode, Craig, the current White House Counsel to President Barack H. Obama, was characterized by his energy and cordiality on Harvard’s campus. Appointed to Obama’s staff in November 2008, Craig has long been a political force, something that began to take shape in his undergraduate years. Through artistic and political endeavors, Craig demonstrated a sociability that he would carry with him to his office in the West Wing.
HAVING A (TENOR) VOICE ON CAMPUS
Upon arriving at Harvard fresh from Phillips Exeter Academy, Craig became a popular figure around campus, acquiring friends and acquaintances easily with his genuine, upbeat demeanor. “[The room] phone was constantly ringing, and we only had one phone line in the room. We were all waiting for calls from our girlfriends, but 90 percent of the time, the phone line was for Greg,” recalls Richard E. Hammond `67, one of Craig’s Leverett roommates.
Craig carried his energy wherever he went, taking his vocal talent to the stage as a member of the Krokodiloes, Harvard’s oldest all-male acappella group. “I remember when he tried out at the time, he had this most angelic face, and we all just loved his voice,” says Kenneth M. Kastleman ’66, who sang with Craig. “He was certainly the most handsome of us. Apologies to the rest of the Kroks of that era.”
Despite the fact that Harvard was still a stringently academic, all-male institution, the Krokodiloes allowed Craig to squeeze in some fun. “We sang at as many women’s colleges as possible,” says Kastleman. “It was always the case that a large coterie of girls would crowd around Craig after a performance. To his credit, he was always incredibly gentlemanly, and had no intention of taking advantage of those situations.”
His popularity not only achieved applause at Krok performances from his many admirers—it also connected him to faculty and fellow students.
Craig devoted his energy to issues beyond hitting the high notes. “He was also a very serious person,” says Hammond. “In those days, he was further ahead than a lot of us were in looking seriously at the political, international, economic, and human rights issues that confronted America.”
Driven by this intellectualism, Craig developed good relations with the Harvard faculty, holding forums and meeting with them personally. “He had a very active faculty engagement, with Barney Frank, and Henry Kissinger, and Harold Burbank,” says Hammond. “Most of the undergrads were quite shy about putting their intellect at risk in conversation with faculty, but Greg simply went out and engaged them.”
Craig proved to be a stellar student, displaying the conscientiousness and academic dedication that has characterized his professional career as a lawyer and politician. A history concentrator who graduated Phi Beta Kappa, Craig learned quickly how to separate work from fun and received the Lionel De Jersey Fellowship to study at Cambridge University.
“[He was] very focused. Very focused,” says Docken. “Somehow he had a key to some room in Leverett House in the towers—I’m not sure how he got it—but if he had a paper or something due, he’d be down in that room, hacking away at the typewriter.”
It was in that secret room that Craig composed his senior thesis on writer Upton Sinclair’s campaign to use the California Democratic Party for implementing socialist reforms during the Great Depression. “It is certainly an illustrious choice of a thesis for someone who ended up doing what he does now,” says Docken.
Indeed, Craig’s combination of amiability and intellectual perspective culminated his senior year, with his election as Chairman of the Harvard Undergraduate Council. As Chairman, Craig demonstrated his leadership and communicative ability on both on a campus-wide and national levels. Craig loosened a strict campus with parietal extensions and oversaw the creation of an informal freshman advising system. “He used his leadership of the UC to create a forum, not just addressing student government issues, but also sponsoring things like American policy in Vietnam,” says Hammond. “He used that forum and leadership post to bring speakers to Harvard and that led to policy discussions and debates for the student body.”
Craig levied his student leadership to address the nation’s salient issue of the time: the Vietnam War. Along with prominent anti-war politician Allard K. Lowenstein, Craig helped organize a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson from student leaders representing over 100 U.S. colleges that protested the war in Vietnam. They questioned the purpose, tactics, and media coverage of the war, along with the draft. The letter stirred up national attention after it appeared on the front-page of The New York Times in December of 1966.
According to Docken, the qualities that makes Craig a prominent representative of the Democratic left in Washington politics emerged during these accomplishments in his junior and senior years at Harvard.
SINGING A NEW TUNE
No longer in the Harvard spotlight, the nation will now likely see the renowned tenacity from Craig as he helps guide the Obama administration. Although Craig’s days of hammering away at typewriters in Leverett Towers are far behind him, old classmates say they recognize the same energetic, good-humored, and ingenuous Craig on television as White House Counsel that they knew in college.
“He possessed that intellectual spirit, even as a young guy, to identify a public value, and go to work in it. He figured out how to give it bearing, and push it ahead,” says Hammond. “And I think that’s been a hallmark of his career, where he’s practiced that in a variety of forms, whether in courtrooms, in international forums, in Congress, or on the floor of the Senate.”