On a couch outside Princeton University’s Dodds Auditorium, where a conference titled “The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present and Future” was taking place, a veteran culture warrior, William Bennett, found himself surrounded by a group of eight African-American graduate students who had gathered to protest a racially charged remark he had made on his radio show months earlier: “You could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down.”
It was a good thing Princeton’s star jurisprudence professor, Robert “Robby” George, rushed to Bennett’s side. Because while Bennett alternated between sputtering defensiveness and grumbling defiance, telling the students, “You don’t understand how many people in the black community told me they agree with what I said,” George controlled the tense dialogue as if it were any academic seminar, acknowledging the student protesters only when they raised their hands and waited their turn. Throughout, George was cool and unflaggingly civil. And when it ended, he proposed a more formal follow-up meeting–an idea the students heartily accepted.
This is the Robby George respected and well liked at Princeton. He’s the outspoken social conservative eager to engage liberal students in impassioned debates on social issues and whose annual course on civil liberties is invariably over-enrolled. He’s an accomplished legal and moral philosopher who has earned the admiration of conservative intellectuals and the respect of mainstream academia. Most of all, George is known around campus as a nice guy whose attendance at High Holiday services with his Jewish wife embodies the personal qualities that have endeared him to the Princeton community.
But there is another side to George, less tolerant, ferociously partisan and intimately connected to wealthy organizations that wish explicitly to inject their politics into the universities–a side better known by Beltway Republicans and right-wing Christian activists than on the long green lawns of Princeton. He’s been a presence at the White House over the past five years, stopping by no fewer than five times to counsel George W. Bush on such issues as the faith-based initiative, what he calls “Catholic social ethics” and Supreme Court nominations. He also serves on the President’s Council on Bioethics, where he has worked to obstruct federal funding of stem cell research, and he helped write an amendment on behalf of the White House calling for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004.
With access and top-rank academic credentials, George has become a sought-after right-wing pundit, penning columns for National Review and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and recently guest-blogging on Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination battle for the Family Research Council, the Christian right lobbying outfit that planned a series of televised rallies for Bush’s judicial picks called “Justice Sunday.”
George has brought his conservatism to bear at Princeton through the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, an academic center he founded in 2000 “to sustain America’s experiment in ordered liberty.” On the surface, the program appears modeled after institutions like Princeton’s Center for Human Values and New York University’s Remarque Institute. However, it functions in many ways as a vehicle for conservative interests, using funding from a shadowy, cultlike Catholic group and right-wing foundations to support gatherings of movement activists, fellowships for ideologically correct visiting professors and a cadre of conservative students.