Timothy P. McCarthy ’93 has, maybe, four people he’s obsessed with at the moment. One of them is Nate Silver.
Sunday bread night has just ended and I’m at his office as he’s wrapping up with a few students. Nate Silver dominates the conversation, and it smells like election season. McCarthy’s life and work is inherently political—he came of age during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the era of the anti-apartheid movement and AIDS. For much of his adult life, he’s been speaking out about racial justice and LGBTQ issues. And for 16 years, that voice has been coming from Quincy.
Inside McCarthy’s ground-floor office are relics of his life at Harvard, little testaments to his work and to Quincy House. It’s the house where he changed, grew up, came out.
On his desk is a framed poster for a documentary about the living wage and assorted awards—one for teaching and advising, another given by Quincy House. One of the walls is lined with bookcases holding hundreds of volumes and memories, but the books still overflow: They form neat piles on the floor and fill up crates set upon the bookcases themselves. The shelves also hold photographs of past students, no doubt, and a pillar candle with Pope John Paul II.
On another bookcase, action figures: Derek Jeter, Barack Obama, Abe Lincoln. And on the bottom shelf, Ann Coulter. (She’s a gift from a student, McCarthy says.)
Once upon a time, McCarthy was part of the first sophomore class to be sorted into Quincy under the non-ordered four-choice system. At the time, McCarthy was a total jock, a basketball and track star from a “cultural rhythms” blocking group who wore a “straight but not narrow shirt.”
“At least I wasn’t one of those closet cases who was a homophobe,” he says. “I was one of those closet cases who was desperately trying to come out.” (McCarthy married his husband, C.J. Crowder, in the Quincy Courtyard in May 2011, “under the graduation tent.”)
And his class in Quincy House was a prime example of house randomization working—McCarthy says the sophomores were an unusually social, well-balanced group that helped Quincy shed its “Asian pre-med” reputation. Now, it’s known as “the people’s house.”
Upon arriving on campus, he joined the anti-apartheid movement, reflecting a passion for racial justice that rings through his work till this day.
And it was at Harvard that McCarthy “fell in love with learning all over again.” “I felt like I was at all-you-can-eat buffet,” he says. He was one of a few white kids studying African American studies—another fact that’s changed over the years.
When we talk Sunday night, the election is weighing heavily on McCarthy’s mind, though it’s only the third he’s experienced in Quincy. The last one he spent here was 2000—he left the JCR at 3:00 a.m. and went to bed thinking Gore had won.
“And I hadn’t voted for Gore!” McCarthy exclaims. “I voted for Nader!”
So, I ask, was Bill Clinton the first black president?
Clinton-talk animates McCarthy. He’s up in his chair, hands alternating gripping the armrests, gesturing, and firmly landing on his desk. Suddenly, I see how the tattered armrests must have come about, as the light catches his broad wedding band.
“He systematically threw three black women under the bus,” McCarthy says: Sister Souljah, Lani Guinier, and Joycelyn Elders.
Elders, he said, wanted to teach kids about masturbation. “What the problem is with that, I don’t know! Everyone in the United States masturbates.”
And that’s not even mentioning LGBT issues, which, McCarthy says, Obama spent most of his first term undoing.
Definitely not the first black present. That was Obama, he says, though Clinton was a “political genius.” Obama, on the other hand, has spoken less about race “than any president since Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
So, is Obama the first gay president?
No—and if you ask McCarthy, Andrew Sullivan got the slogan from his Huffington Post piece. But, Obama is “the LGBT movement’s LBJ.”
And his evolution? “Everyone knows the evolution was a performance.” (As an aside, he tells me, he got news of Biden’s endorsement of marriage equality as he was powering down his phone for a private tour of the West Wing with his husband.)
When it comes to other issues, McCarthy still hopes Obama will evolve on. He joined his campaign in the last election cycle, McCarthy says, primarily because he was the peace candidate. That rhetoric has shifted as fast as the drone war has escalated, but McCarthy says he thinks the President wrestles with those issues on a personal, moral level.
Right now, though, it’s important for Obama to win. “In order for us to have a second black president in the near future, he has to win a second term,” McCarthy says. Inevitably, future black candidates will be judged on Obama’s success.
But the real problem isn’t with those who aren’t voting for him, but those who are rooting for him to fail. Those, McCarthy says, are “complicit in all the worst elements of this country...a 21st century manifestation of racism.”
He tells me that on Tuesday, he’s hosting an election night party at Tommy Doyle’s, near the only place that feels like home.
But no matter what happens on Tuesday, one thing isn’t likely to change.
McCarthy’s friends, he tells me, say that there are only two people in the world who say where they live without a street address or postal code: Santa Claus in the North Pole, and McCarthy in Quincy House, Harvard.