Claire Hale Underwood: From Pennypacker Hall to Pennsylvania Avenue
November 2, 2018
On May 22, 1987, a young Claire Hale stepped up to the podium to address a crowd of her Harvard classmates in Tercentenary Theatre. Thirty one years later, she now steps up to address the nation as its first female president and commander-in-chief.
“I remember watching people as she gave her speech” says Sandra E. Daugherty, a former classmate from Claire’s time at Radcliffe. “It was memorable in the sense that we all knew this wouldn’t be the last time we heard from Claire. She exuded focus, determination and the need for success, sometimes at any cost.” While her years since college have certainly shaped her views and diplomatic prowess, there’s no doubt that her years at Harvard played a large role in shaping the Claire that America knows today.
When Claire arrived at Harvard, it was a different time for female students. “You have to remember that for much of the ’70s there was still fierce opposition to the inclusion of women at Harvard,” recalls Elizabeth Adler-Graham, former associate dean of undergraduate education. “Even though by that time the school was taking a one-to-one ratio of men to women at enrollment, the culture on campus was still very much male-dominated.”
But while some women struggled to find their voice, Claire had no problems. She quickly learned how to navigate the old boys’ club; a skill that would prove useful in later years.
“When people first met Claire around campus, I think most expected a southern belle—and she used that to her advantage,”Gerald Perrier, a classmate who served alongside Underwood on the Harvard Undergraduate Council, said. “Beneath her calm, debutante exterior was a fierce intellect and incredible self-confidence.”
“If someone on the council took a different position to Claire, we’d all watch in silence as she calmly dismantled them—man or woman,” Perrier said.
MAKINGS OF A POLITICIAN
While Underwood was at school, classmates and colleagues alike were quick to identify the qualities of a politician-in-the-making.
“When I first met Claire, she wore brightly-colored scrunchies and too much hair spray,” Annalise Kirke, Claire’s second year classmate, laughed. “But she still carried herself with a level of self-possession that would make even the most distinguished professors cower.”
One of those professors was Jonathan Bergstein, Claire’s undergraduate professor who later became her research advisor at the Harvard T.H. Chan Graduate School for Public Health.
“I was offering a popular course at the time: “Environmental Science and Public Policy.” Students had to lottery to enroll as we could only accept thirty students per year,” Bergstein said. “I remember Claire came to my office and showed me the enrollment demographics for my class. She calmly suggested I was favoring male students and noted that The Crimson was looking for a story on inequality at Harvard. I laugh about it now, but if I’m really being honest, it was essentially blackmail.”
And Claire’s powers of negotiation were not merely reserved for professors and faculty members. In the lead-up to Housing Day, “Claire knew to become close with the many house administrators.”According to her roommate at the time, “she was somehow able to “finagle [our] group’s way into our top choice for housing: Adams House,” said Rutkowski. “Years later, I heard rumors that she’d used an incriminating photo of one of the admins, but that doesn’t sound like Claire to me.”
A SOLITARY FIGURE
While she could be intimidating in the classroom, outside of it Underwood was noted as quiet and focused, often preferring to spend time by herself, alone with her thoughts.
“Claire was always the one who would come home from a late night in Lamont studying for a midterm or writing a twenty-page paper, and still go out for a run,” Natalie Rutkowski, a former roommate, said. Multiple sources recall that while other students were busy hanging out at Noch’s [Pinocchio’s Pizza], Underwood would often be seen on long runs around the Charles or through Mount Auburn Cemetery, headphones over her ears and a Walkman clipped to her waist.
“If she was ever having trouble or upset about something, Claire never told us about it,” Rutkowski remembers. “She spent much of her time by herself, preferring to work through things on her own, alone with her thoughts. That’s probably where her need for running came from.”
At campus events, it was obvious that Claire’s Highland Park upbringing had set her up for success. Despite what many described as an icy demeanor, former classmates recall her ability to turn on incredible charm, drawing in potential political allies, high-powered advocates and devoted acolytes. “Faculty members and students, particularly those from prominent political families, found themselves enthralled by Claire”Nicole Covington, another of Underwood’s classmates, said.
Over the four years of her master’s program, Claire continued to lay the groundwork for a successful career in politics. “She made sure she was involved with all the right groups on campus, like The Hasty Pudding and the Undergraduate Council” said Covington. “She stopped smoking her Virginia Slims (she used to smoke back then), she founded a handful of non-profit groups on campus, and she started dating an equally ambitious and driven young man. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Harvard was certainly a transformational experience for Claire Underwood. Now, it is her alma mater’s turn to see how Underwood transforms the country under her leadership.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either used in a fictitious manner, for the purposes of promoting Netflix’s House of Cards television series. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.
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