Princeton Tilts Right

Princeton Tilts Right

Robert George, the conservative movement’s favorite professor, exerts his influence.


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.

George’s program has become the blueprint for the right’s strategy to extend and consolidate power within the university system. Stanley Kurtz described the plan for National Review this past April: “Princeton’s Madison Program is a model for solving the political-correctness problem in the academy as a whole. We may not be able to do much about tenured humanities and social science faculties at elite colleges that are liberal by margins of more than 90 percent. But setting up small enclaves of professors with more conservative views is a real possibility.”

The creation of the Madison Program would not have been possible without the acquiescence of Princeton’s administration, which, after permitting its establishment, has embraced it. In doing so, Princeton has become a testing ground for the latest phase in the right’s effort to politicize the academy. And while George maintains that his agenda at Princeton is above politics, even his friends describe him as a savvy right-wing operative boring from within the liberal infrastructure. As an article in Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine then published by George’s ally Deal Hudson, pithily put it in 2003, “If there really is a vast, right-wing conspiracy, its leaders probably meet in George’s basement.”

Culture Warrior

The man who spearheads the right’s new campus strategy traveled an unlikely route to his destiny. George was raised in a family of New Deal Democrats living in the coal-mining town of Morgantown, West Virginia. As an idealistic high school senior in 1972, he volunteered for George McGovern’s presidential campaign. His politics took a sharp right turn, however, when he arrived at Swarthmore College and came under the influence of political science professor James Kurth, a self-described former “borderline Marxist” turned conservative evangelical. “He urged us to question the campus orthodoxy and the herd mentality of faculty and students,” George told the Princeton Alumni Weekly about his mentor.

George went on to Harvard Law School, then Oxford, where he earned a doctorate in philosophy and finally wound up at Princeton, where he was given tenure in its politics department in 1993. Several years later, George was awarded the prestigious McCormick Professorship of Jurisprudence originally held by Woodrow Wilson.

But success in the academic world has not quelled George’s suspicion that liberal bias lurks behind the door of every faculty lounge, ready to snuff out any sign of conservative politics. “The only way I made it is that there were honorable liberals prepared to support me,” George told me. “But today, the hegemonic point of view is the liberal point of view on universities. So if you have a conservative student, I’m thinking it would be great to have him as a professor at Williams or Yale, or Oklahoma, but look what he faces. If they find out he’s pro-life or against same-sex marriage, he might be cut off, or not be able to get through graduate school.” When I asked George if he had firsthand knowledge of conservative students being “cut off” by liberal discrimination, he said he did not.

George’s rise through the ranks of academia coincided with his emergence as a central figure among a rising cohort of right-wing Catholic political leaders. Besides George, significant members of this generation are Deal Hudson, Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Amherst jurisprudence professor Hadley Arkes (who is reportedly Jewish, though he travels almost exclusively in Catholic right political and intellectual circles).

With the ascendancy of George W. Bush, the Catholic right was invested with unprecedented power. During the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, one of Bush’s operatives, former RNC chief and chief Enron lobbyist Ed Gillespie, also a right-wing Catholic, tapped George and Hudson to teach Bush how to “speak Catholic,” as Commonweal magazine put it. The relationship was formalized when the RNC hired Hudson, also a regular adviser to Karl Rove, as its Catholic Outreach director. Hudson successfully pressed some conservative Catholic bishops to pledge to deny communion to John Kerry, one of the most effective tactics deployed in the presidential campaign. (Hudson fell out of favor with the White House at the height of the 2004 campaign when the National Catholic Reporter revealed that his sexual relationship with a female student had cost him his professorship at Fordham University ten years before. Right before the story broke, he resigned his RNC post.)

Among George’s Catholic right allies, Arkes is the one he is probably closest to. He and Arkes helped the Bush White House promote nominees to the Supreme Court and provided Santorum with advice on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. Though Arkes has advised Santorum to whittle away incrementally at abortion rights through legislation like the so-called “partial-birth” abortion ban, his philosophical opposition to abortion is absolute, to the point that he has appeared to condone murder. In 1994, amid a spate of violent attacks against women’s health clinics, Arkes participated in a symposium called “Killing Abortionists” where he compared antiabortion activist Paul Hill’s assassination of Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard to Jews killing “guards and executioners on their way to work in Auschwitz.”

Speaking at the same symposium, George pledged he would continue “respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity–not a good, but a lesser evil.” Nine years later George’s James Madison Program awarded Arkes a fellowship along with a $25,000 grant.

Like Arkes, George’s philosophy is grounded in his reading of natural law, a school of thought derived from the teachings of thirteenth-century Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas, which holds that moral principles are inherent in human consciousness and reflected by a God-given ability to reason. Natural law informs much of George’s 2001 book, The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis, especially its passages on sexual morality. “The plain fact is that the genitals of men and women are reproductive organs all of the time–even during periods of sterility,” he writes. To curb sexual practices he views as immoral, including oral sex and masturbation (which he calls “bad” sex), George supports state laws banning sodomy, adultery and fornication.

The influence of George’s mentor, Kurth, on the Clash of Orthodoxies is also apparent. Kurth is a paleoconservative of the Pat Buchanan variety who opposes the war in Iraq almost as strongly as he supports the right’s kulturkampf. He articulated his views most explicitly in a 2004 essay for Buchanan’s American Conservative magazine, arguing that since the “golden age” of the 1950s, Western civilization and its supposedly Christian underpinnings have been most seriously threatened not from without by communism or Islam (which he called “merely a disease of the skin”) but undermined from within by “political and economic elites.”

But which “elites” does he have in mind? Unlike conservatives who inveigh against some nebulous cosmopolitan element, Kurth names names. “This development,” he wrote, referring to the decline of Western civilization, “was related to the collapse of the Protestant (WASP) ascendancy in the American intellectual and legal elites and to the ascendancy of Jews into those elites.”

Five years earlier, in an article for the conservative Catholic journal First Things, George had called Kurth “brilliant” and outlined Kurth’s impact on his own thinking. “Kurth argued persuasively that the clash that is coming–and has, indeed, already begun,” George said, “is not so much among the world’s great civilizations as it is within the civilization of the West, between those who claim the Judeo-Christian worldview and those who have abandoned that worldview in favor of the ‘isms’ of contemporary American life–feminism, multiculturalism, gay liberationism, lifestyle liberalism–what I here lump together as a family called ‘the secularist orthodoxy.'”

For George, the culture war is a clash of civilizations. You’re either with him or you’re with the secularists. Entrenched at Princeton, he is taking the fight to the enemy.

Point Man for the ‘Fifty-Year Project’

For decades conservatives have viewed America’s university system as a dangerous cradle of radicalism. Frank Chodorov, founder of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), was among the first to propose a campaign to assert right-wing influence over universities as a central tactic in the conservative movement’s grand strategy.

“What the socialists have done can be undone, if there is a will for it,” Chodorov wrote in his 1962 autobiography, Out of Step. “Individualism can be revived by implanting the ideas in the minds of the coming generations…. It is, in short, a fifty-year project.”

Under the guidance of former Nixon Treasury Secretary William Simon, who once compared universities to insane asylums, industrial chieftains like John Olin, Harry and Lynde Bradley, and Richard Mellon Scaife bankrolled the fifty-year project, funneling whopping grants to outfits like Accuracy in Academia and ISI. While Accuracy in Academia hyped and, on occasion, manufactured supposed “campus political correctness atrocities,” ISI provided a support structure for right-wing academics while grooming a cadre of student activists to, in the group’s own words, “battle the radicals and PC types on campuses.”

Thanks in no small part to such outside right-wing funding, Princeton’s conservative tradition is among the most robust of American universities. When Princeton lifted its quota on black students in the late 1960s, then began admitting women in 1969, a group of disgruntled right-wing alumni–who would eventually be joined by Samuel Alito, now a Supreme Court Justice–formed the Concerned Alumni of Princeton to fight back. Later on, with financial backing from well-heeled sources, conservative students founded a magazine called The Princeton Tory, which once declared “Open Season on Liberals,” featuring a photograph of a rifle-toting hunter on its cover. If anyone was being intimidated on campus, it was not conservatives.

George’s arrival at Princeton was greeted with intense enthusiasm by conservative outfits interested in establishing a foothold there. In 1995, the Earhart Foundation, a major donor to ISI, began subsidizing him with annual “summer money” payments of up to $25,000.

That same year, Earhart waded into an ethical swamp when it bankrolled a glowing review of George’s book Making Men Moral. The reviewer was Christopher Wolfe, a Marquette University professor and longtime friend and collaborator of George’s. (In 1999 George contributed to Wolfe’s antigay tract Homosexuality and American Public Life, and the two co-edited another volume, Natural Law and Public Reason.)

Earhart paid Wolfe the unusual sum of $7,000 to review the book for ISI’s Political Science Reviewer. “In a better world,” Wolfe gushed, “‘Making Men Moral’ would bring about a revolution in contemporary thought on civil liberties.” He concluded with a prediction that George’s future work would be “one of the most important intellectual and political projects of our generation.” (Wolfe acknowledged a relationship with the Earhart Foundation in his article.)

Asked about the ethics of an outside foundation paying a professor $7,000 for a review essay in an academic journal, Rogers Smith, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and governing council member of the American Political Science Association, responded, “That would be scandalous, clearly a breach of professional standards of intellectual honesty.” Jeffrey Isaac, professor of political science at Indiana University and book review editor of the APSA’s Perspectives on Politics, said, “I would never publish a review that has been financed outside, under any circumstances.” Claiming he could not recall Wolfe’s review, George told me, “I don’t have any trouble with collaborators reviewing my books.”

Wolfe brushed aside questions about any ethical problem with his review. In an e-mailed response, he defended himself: “By its critical analysis of certain parts of George’s argument, the article was part of an ongoing debate about the proper understanding of natural law theory within the community of natural law-oriented scholars. For the Earhart Foundation to provide support for scholarship of this sort raises no ethical questions at all (except in the positive ethical sense that they are providing a valuable public service).”

Cashing In on Controversy

In 1999, while conservative donors sought increased opportunities for expanding right-wing presence on campus, Princeton became the site of a perfect storm. That year, the school hired Peter Singer, an internationally renowned ethicist who had become a bête noire of the right for his philosophical discussion of the painless euthanasia of severely disabled infants. Singer’s hiring at the school’s Center for Human Values generated angry right-wing protests on campus and an ensuing media firestorm. George played no small part in inciting the controversy.

The row was ignited when 250 demonstrators gathered outside Princeton’s gates on Singer’s first day of class in September 1999. They were addressed by billionaire Princeton trustee and then-candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Steve Forbes. Forbes vowed to withhold his donations to Princeton until it fired Singer. In an open letter, Forbes reiterated his pledge to withhold his money and praised “those who are calling on Princeton’s leadership to relieve this man [Singer] of his duties and affiliation with this great university.” Among the “heroes,” Forbes hailed “Professor Robert George.”

While Forbes used his financial muscle to strong-arm the school, George took to the media. He was interviewed at the height of the controversy on PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and introduced as “one of Singer’s strongest critics.” The right-wing Washington Times also turned to him for criticisms of Singer. Though the university did not fire Singer, the controversy contributed to a much larger victory for George and his allies.

Just months after the Singer affair, the James Madison Program sprang to life fully funded. Forbes was a major donor to the program. From 2004 to 2005 Forbes and his younger brother Christopher donated $1,105,625 to Princeton, much of which went to the Madison Program. (Steve Forbes sits on the program’s advisory board.) Princeton’s acquiescence in the Madison Program’s creation hints that at least one of Princeton’s motivations was to make peace with one of its largest donors. Indeed, with the Madison Program in place, Forbes reversed his ironclad vow to make all future donations contingent on the firing of Singer.

George responded to my questions about Forbes’s benefaction and the genesis of the Madison Program by saying, “The James Madison Program was already established when Steve Forbes called to say that he had heard about the new program and wanted to know more. We discussed the program’s mission, activities and plans. I don’t recall him saying anything about Peter Singer.” Princeton’s Office of Development routed questions about the Singer affair to the school’s spokesperson, Cass Cliatt. Without directly addressing the controversy that erupted after Singer was hired, Cliatt stated, “There is no evidence of any connection between the faculty appointment [of Singer] and the creation of the Madison Program.” Yet detailed accounts by two of George’s fellow National Review contributors tell a decidedly different story from the one Princeton has given. Though neither account discusses Forbes’s role in the Madison Program’s establishment, they both assert a clear link between the Singer controversy and the genesis of the program.

In an article published last April in National Review titled “The Princeton Way,” Stanley Kurtz wrote, “Establishing an alternative program is what Princeton did when it faced alumni anger for hiring euthanasia-advocate Peter Singer. In response to the Singer hiring, Princeton created the Madison Program, headed by the brilliant natural-law theorist, social conservative, and frequent NR/NRO [National Review] contributor Robert George. Now social conservatives at Princeton have a place to go.”

A newly published book by National Review political reporter John Miller about one of the Madison Program’s major donors, the John M. Olin Foundation, A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America, augments Kurtz’s history by suggesting that George milked the Singer controversy for donations. “In 2000, at a time when the [Olin] foundation was turning down virtually every new proposal that came its way,” Miller writes, “it decided to provide $525,000 in startup money for the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University…. The Madison Program benefited from a debate surrounding Princeton’s decision to hire Peter Singer, a left-wing advocate of eugenics, to lead what was supposedly a center for bioethics.” (Branding Singer an “advocate of eugenics” is a falsehood that is a hallmark of the campaign against him.)

Olin’s donations were supplemented by the Bradley Foundation, which supported Charles Murray’s infamous book The Bell Curve (written with Richard Herrnstein), which asserted that blacks and Latinos are less intelligent than whites. Between 2002 and 2003 Bradley dumped about $400,000 into the Madison Program; in February 2005 the foundation presented George with an additional $250,000 “award” at a black-tie gala at Washington’s Kennedy Center. In his acceptance speech before 500 Republican revelers, George waxed nostalgic. “When the program was little more than a twinkle in my eye,” he said, “the Bradley Foundation played a critical role in two ways: It joined the John M. Olin Foundation, the Donner Foundation and several dedicated individual donors in providing much needed funding–as it continues to do.”

George also tapped into his connections with the Catholic right for more funding. Between 2000 and 2002 the Madison Program received more than $330,000 from groups with innocuous-sounding names like the Association for Cultural Interchange (ACI), the Clover Foundation and the Higher Education Initiatives Fund. Last spring the Daily Princetonian campus newspaper revealed these to be conduits for funding by Opus Dei, a secretive, cultish Catholic group founded by fascist sympathizer Josemaría Escrivá. Luis Tellez, the leader of ACI, who runs an Opus Dei student house on the outskirts of the campus, sits on the Madison Program’s advisory council.

George flatly denies that the Madison Program accepts money from Opus Dei. “I can tell you categorically we have never taken a dime from Opus Dei,” he stated. But when asked if his program has taken money from foundations funded by Opus Dei, he was less unequivocal: “As far as I know, we have never…I have no idea. Maybe the Scaife Foundation has some Opus Dei connection. This is ridiculous.”

George also denied that the Madison Program is a proxy for conservative movement interests. “It’s misleading to call the program a conservative program, but it’s certainly not misleading to call me a conservative,” he explained. “And I think because I’m the leader of the program, it takes a certain coloration.” A puff piece about George by the journal of the Philanthropy Roundtable, a conservative group that organizes foundation grants to movement activists, reflects the extent to which his donors propel the Madison Program’s agenda. “George established a secure beachhead for traditional views at Princeton, and waited to push inland,” Philanthropy wrote. “The foundations and philanthropists gave him the opportunity.”

Because the program is largely autonomous, it remains unclear who will succeed George as its leader, and how that decision will be reached–and whether any thought has been given to these matters either by the program or Princeton.

Finally Cheerful

A glance at the Madison Program’s apparatus reveals a “coloration” more akin to the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute than the benign, albeit slightly right-of-center academic institution George has described. Perhaps it is no wonder a favorable but factual January 1 profile of George in the Trenton Times described his program as “a conservative think tank.”

Besides packing the Madison Program’s advisory council with right-wing donors (as many partisan think tanks do with their boards of directors), George has assembled a collection of visiting fellows rife with academic neophytes and unknowns–many of whom have also been fellows of foundations like Olin and Bradley. Unlike most other academic centers on campus, the Madison Program accepts no endowment money from Princeton. The school, therefore, pays nothing for the services of Madison fellows, and their academic credentials are left to George to determine.

One of George’s fellows, Matthew Holland, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, has not written a single book. According to Holland’s biography, his “current research project examines what it might mean for public policy and constitutional interpretation in America today if liberal political theory took as seriously as the founders did the notion that freedom was something to be preserved as well as enjoyed.”

Many of the Madison Program’s visiting fellows have taught courses in Princeton’s politics department or precepted for other professors. This spring the program will bring the University of Toronto’s Rabbi David Novak to campus to teach a course on natural law in Judaism and Christianity. Novak is another close ally of George’s. In 1994 they signed a manifesto against homosexuality that stated, “The gay and lesbian movement…have unloosed a great moral agitation in our culture.”

George has attracted ideologically like-minded students to the Madison Program by offering them “junior fellowships.” Many of these junior fellows are simultaneously affiliated with Opus Dei, according to the Daily Princetonian. Many of the staff members of The Princeton Tory are Madison junior fellows, as is the president of the Princeton College Republicans. This is what National Review‘s Kurtz meant when he hailed the program for giving social conservatives “a place to go.”

By intensifying conservatism’s imprint on Princeton’s curriculums, George claimed to me that he has ingratiated himself with the school. “Alumni and members of the university community, including people in the development office,” he said, “have reported to me that my presence in the university and as the leader of a program has been remarked on favorably as showing that Princeton is a place that truly values intellectual diversity.”

It’s a good thing Princeton approves–or appears to approve–of what George is doing. Because as Philanthropy suggests, the Madison Program’s refusal to accept a university endowment prevents the school from exercising leverage over it. “Without an endowment,” the magazine writes, “there is nothing for the university to seize if it were to take over the Madison Program. At the slightest threat to the program’s integrity, the foundations and philanthropists supporting it can pull their money.”

The Madison Program has made its presence felt beyond conservative circles through the often provocative lectures George convenes. Past events include “Contemporary Politics of Immigration in the United States,” which, besides various academic experts on the topic, featured white nationalist author Peter Brimelow. Then there was “Lawrence v. Texas: The Worst Supreme Court Decision in History?” and most recently, “The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present and Future,” which George organized with Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.

During the “Conservative Movement” conference, William Bennett touted his civil rights credentials while denouncing Democrats for being “against America.” Seated beside George’s mentor, James Kurth, neoconservative pundit Frank Gaffney held forth that “the metastasized danger we face today” from terrorism should be attributed to George Bush Sr. and the “left-wing” Bill Clinton. Gaffney also took time to promote his new anthology, War Footing: 10 Steps America Must Take to Prevail in the War for the Free World, in which an afterword states, “No more praise for those who dissent. When they ask, ‘Wouldn’t you fight for my right to dissent?’ I have to answer, ‘Not right now.'”

The most startling surprise of the conference came when a mystery guest, Bush’s political “architect,” Karl Rove, signed in for a question-and-answer session. George’s invitation to Rove might have been considered ironic in light of George’s hostile attitude when President Bill Clinton was invited to speak at a 2000 Princeton conference on the Progressive Era and its Presidents (including former president of Princeton Woodrow Wilson). After rejecting an invitation to participate, George sent the Wall Street Journal an editorial he had written that, he told the Journal, the conference’s planners had bullied the Daily Princetonian into spiking. Then he took his case to the conservative group Accuracy in Academia, asking of Clinton’s visit, “Now what kind of a message does it send to have somebody with that record of mendacity coming in to be celebrated in an academic conference? What’s it say about the standards of truthfulness in academia?”

But George was enthused when the possibility of Rove’s visit arose. Rove’s appearance was kept a surprise to all in attendance, pre-empting any protests his presence might have spawned. Throughout his talk Secret Service agents were posted at discreet positions in the lecture hall and C-SPAN’s cameras were not allowed to film. According to George, Rove defended the Bush Administration’s conservative credentials against a series of pointed questions about federal spending and what one attendee called “the abandonment of limited government principles.” One of the few journalists in attendance–and the only self-identified liberal who spoke at the conference–Rick Perlstein, author of a pathbreaking book on Barry Goldwater, offered an account for the Huffington Post blog, in which he described how Rove “defended his conservative purity by boasting of how he pressured a reluctant Republican into voting for a free trade bill (‘That sombitch was cryin!’).”

While conservatives bemoan the betrayal of their principles in spite of their majority status in every branch of government, they take heart from George’s project at Princeton. The James Madison Program has come a long way since 2001, when George disparaged Princeton as a place dominated by “thinned-out new-age spiritualities and vague references to ideals that are beyond the material, but without any substance or rootedness in Christianity, in the Hebraic tradition, even in the classical tradition.” Princeton capitulated to George’s attack on its own faculty, his colleagues–thinking, perhaps, that by turning the other cheek and letting the attack stand, the university would enhance its image as tolerant.

Today, George’s attitude seems to have softened. His stable of donors is steadily growing–for the first time, it includes the venerable Scaife Foundation. And as the Madison Program expands its breadth on campus, those members of Princeton’s faculty and administration George calls “honorable liberals” like what they see.

“I’m not anguished about the environment or the climate,” George said. “I’m cheerful. Heck, I can’t complain about the way I’ve been treated by Princeton.”

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