Alums in politics reflect on NU's changed political landscape

    I have proof that anyone dabbling in politics lies. Incontrovertible, indubitable, undeniable and a myriad of other fancy synonyms for “good,” proof that they lie. I called up four Northwestern alumni who are now or have at one point worked in politics. From their first words — their hello’s and how-are-yous — they sounded like genuine, good people.

    Then they answered the first question: “How did you like your time at Northwestern?” To my disbelief, every one answered, “loved it,” and then said no more, as if that mere phrase were so universal, the feeling so mutual, that it needed no explanation.

    Maybe you share these sentiments of “loving” Northwestern. Have you forgotten winter quarter? Are thoughts of Dillo Day clouding your judgment? Finals, anyone?

    So perhaps they weren’t lying, and someday when I reflect on my years here I’ll smile knowing what a great experience and opportunity Northwestern was. And perhaps there’s a correlation between success in life and enjoyment of the torture that is our dear, beloved Northwestern University (let’s hope not).

    If you have ever wondered what lies beyond the Arch, my conversations with four alumni — one each from the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s — should be enlightening. Side note: The Arch was built in 1997 as the administration’s calculated way of creating a more visible “entrance” to Northwestern. It is not historic nor quaint. Sorry.

    First, an introduction.

    Representative Mark H. Beaubien (College of Arts and Sciences 1964) has been the Illinois 52nd district’s representative in the Illinois House since 1996.

    Wendy Chamberlin (SESP 1970) worked in the State Department for 30 years, was the US ambassador to Pakistan and now serves as president of the Middle East Institute, a non-partisan think tank.

    Cameron Findlay (CAS 1982) had two stints in Washington: one as deputy assistant to the president and counselor to the chief of staff under President George H. W. Bush, then nearly ten years later as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor under President George W. Bush. He is now the executive vice-president and general counsel at Aon Corporation in Chicago.

    Nathan Daschle (CAS 1995) has been counsel and director of the Democratic Governors Association and now serves as its executive director. He’s also the son of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

    The dividing line: liberal or conservative

    Forgetting for a moment the supposed “political apathy” of campus, when it comes to labeling the majority of students as liberal or conservative, for us the answer seems almost a foregone conclusion (compare funding from ASG for College Democrats to College Republicans).

    But Beaubien felt confident labeling the campus as moderate and leaning towards conservative in the mid-60’s. Chamberlin agreed that through the late 60’s until her graduation in 1970, Northwestern’s image was “traditional.” She spoke of how Northwestern was rated the “best place to send your daughter,” meaning that campus was conservative and thus “safe” for women.

    Yet the students were not so convinced, and Findlay, although he wasn’t on campus by this time, recalls hearing stories about the protests of 1970 in reaction to the shootings at Kent State. He said politics on campus was permeated by a strong anti-war attitude.

    “Students blockaded Sheridan Road,” Findlay said. “There was a wrought iron fence around south campus that was torn down.”

    Students definitely reacted strongly to government policies, although it wasn’t in agreement. Findlay recalled that for the 1980 election, a poll of students that ran in the Daily Northwestern showed support for Jimmy Carter at 45 percent, John Anderson at 40 percent and Ronald Reagan at a mere 15 percent. But perhaps it was easier to come together on politics then because “social issues were not as important. It was all about the Cold War and communism,” Findlay said.

    With the end of the Cold War, the presidency of Ronald Reagan through the 1980s and the ebbing of the fear of communism, the settling of the political landscape began to be reflected on campus. Daschle was hesitant to label campus as leaning either conservative or liberal. He said that’s because whatever your own political views, you tend to be drawn to others who share it and that skews your perception of campus. Northwestern was “socially conscious, not particularly political,” Daschle said.

    Fervor for change: students involved in social issues

    Chamberlin spoke of the beginnings of change she witnessed during the late 1960s. She said her sorority (Alpha Omicron Pi) was the first to pledge an African American girl, which was “a big deal” at the time. It wasn’t just NU — it was “a time of change in America,” she said.

    “There was international fervor on campus… and a demand for recruiting African-Americans,” Chamberlin said. “Diversity was a passion.”

    Not all students were so involved. A few years earlier, during the early 1960s, Beaubien was president of his fraternity (Delta Upsilon) but says this did not signal any “political aspirations.” He said he was president more for fun than anything else.

    Yet though Chamberlin admitted she “partied a lot,” she said she felt that Northwestern’s culture allowed her to have fun on the swim team but at the same time advocate for social change. During this time, “issues began to explode on campus.”

    But by the early 1980’s, the charge behind social issues had waned and instead, “law and order issues… taxes… free markets and libertarianism,” were what Findlay and his classmates were discussing.

    As the divisions cooled, so did activism on campus. Daschle did not recall any demonstrations or marches of Northwestern students that were particularly noteworthy on campus in the 1990s. A politically controversial incident might perhaps have brought a reaction from Northwestern students, but only because “people were fairly aware of the world around them,” Daschle said.

    Something extra: the individual’s place at Northwestern

    Although campus political activity may have lessened at times, one might say that Findlay, Chamberlin, Daschle and Beaubien all have had some success in the political field. Tracing their careers back, it becomes obvious that Northwestern, if it played a role at all, enabled them to become involved in politics.

    Findlay took the political plunge earlier than any of the others when he began working on the elder Bush’s primary campaign before the Bush name was nationally recognized. He was always interested in politics and dabbled in it at Northwestern as academic services VP, but after a summer internship with a senator he said he “caught the Potomac fever.” After earning his law degree (magna cum laude from Harvard, if you were curious) and clerking for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, he said he wanted to jump right into politics.

    After hearing an interviewer at a law firm tell his own story of how he regretted not going into politics when he had the chance (he said the wrong kind of guys were controlling the White House at that point), Findlay’s attitude became one of, “You gotta do it when you can do it.” The republicans had somehow found themselves in power and he said he had no obligations tying him down, so he took the chance.

    “There’s a lot of luck needed in politics,” he said, but the luck was all in his favor that year. Because of his loyalty to Bush for 12 years and some connections he’d made along the way, Findlay’s first job in the White House was five levels higher than it would have been had he gone through entry level.

    Daschle is another ASG alum. He served as a senator and student services VP, but lost the election for president. He recovered however, and after going to law school, he dabbled in litigation for a D.C. firm for a few years. But he said he did it only for the experience, so when an opportunity presented itself at the Democratic Governors Association, he took it.

    For Chamberlin, “Northwestern opened horizons and allowed questioning of authority,” she said.

    Instead of being driven by geography or a particular cause, “the theme that runs through [Chamberlin’s] career is… hot spots.” Having a strong drive to go abroad, she even created her own study abroad program at Northwestern before such a thing became more commonplace. Armed with a few years of Spanish classes, she went off to Latin America to do student teaching.

    She would later hit almost every corner of the world to either teach, learn, or work. Through the International Volunteer Service, she found herself teaching in Laos. “I wanted to go to Laos because I was against the Vietnam war. But I wasn’t satisfied being anti-something, I wanted to understand why,” she recalls.

    Findlay can even recall the names of professors who inspired him while at Northwestern (including Richard Leopold, who died last November, and Jerry Goldman, who still teacher in the Political Science department). The alumni said they remember Northwestern more for its opportunities to explore, not for the level of student political awareness.

    Evolution of politics: views on today’s Washington

    “I’m glad I’m not in Washington these days,” said Findlay. “The environment has become poisoned. Arguments have devolved into name calling. In the past, people felt obliged to focus on the merit. Not anymore.”

    Back in the day, politicians were measured by “how they changed their opponents,” Findlay said. For example, Reagan’s economic policies forced Democrats to focus on the economy and almost created neo-liberalism.

    “I’m concerned about the state of democracy,” he said. He mentioned the testimony of Department of Justice officials in the Senate: “They are not questions and answers, they are rambling monologues.”

    But perhaps that’s just the attitude of someone who’s had to witness a lot of disappointing politicians and inaction. The younger perspective of Daschle is different.

    “This is the best time to be in D.C.,” he said. “If you like politics, you like times when a lot of things are happening. It’s exciting. It’s fun.”


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