Like most of his fellow columnists, Ramesh Ponnuru ’95 failed to predict the rise of Donald Trump. As far back as March 2016, he wrote for Bloomberg Politics that a Trump presidency “would be a rupture, and the party’s definition would be up for grabs.” It was, and it is, and so in the months since the election, Ponnuru has attempted to defend traditional Burkean conservatism from the Breitbart-fed invaders who have overrun the citadel.
Those who have not regularly read Ponnuru, a senior editor at National Review, can find him hard to pin down, but he has resisted marching lockstep with the White House agenda to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain. As he frequently noted during the early primaries, he had allegiances to his old Princeton friend Ted Cruz ’92, to fellow Indian-American Bobby Jindal, and to Jeb Bush, for whom his wife worked. In November, he voted for independent candidate Evan McMullin, and he has made no secret of his disdain for the new president’s temperament and many of his policies.
But Ponnuru enjoys his work. He quotes a friend who told him, “The thing about journalism is, you’re not paid all that much but your psychic income is much higher than your nominal income because it’s not that hard, you get to see your name in print, and you get to criticize people who annoy you.”
Close, but not quite. In person and in print, Ponnuru is mild and soft-spoken. Vitriol might be the last word one would use to describe his style. Ponnuru is a staunch Reaganite, to be sure, but in a hyperpartisan age what stands out about his work is his focus on policy rather than personalities.
In addition to his columns for National Review and Bloomberg, Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Add to that frequent tweets, blog posts, and appearances on CNN and the Sunday talk shows, and he is certainly prolific. He is also something of a prodigy, who entered Princeton just a few weeks after his 17th birthday and became a full-fledged columnist at 25.
Ponnuru grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, the son of two pediatricians. His father, who was Hindu, and his mother, who was Lutheran, met in India; Ponnuru’s older brothers were born there before the family immigrated to the United States and Ramesh was born. His youthful politics were more libertarian, but he turned towards traditional conservatism, writing for the Princeton Sentinel, a small publication that, he explains, tried to be more provocative and current than the staid Princeton Tory. While the Tory attracted writers who imagined themselves the next George F. Will *68, Ponnuru suggests that the Sentinel attracted those who aspired to be the next P.J. O’Rourke.
Still, the circle of campus conservatives was small and he made a name for himself, which he discovered in a startling way. Entering a dorm bathroom one day, he glanced at an ongoing graffiti war scrawled on the door to one of the stalls. Several students had been arguing over some contentious political issue, and one of them had prefaced an argument with, “I’m no Ramesh Ponnuru, but ... .”
What’s a conservative columnist to do? “I am obviously going to keep calling them as I see them and advocating what I consider to be good ideas.”
Professor Robert P. George, who advised Ponnuru on his thesis about abortion in 19th-century America, calls him “a true superstar,” one of the top five students he has taught during his 31-year teaching career. What set Ponnuru apart was his willingness to challenge his own assumptions and then reason his way forward to a conclusion. “He’s his own best critic,” the professor says, “so his work is rigorously argued because of his willingness to take seriously and to meet counterarguments.” He graduated summa cum laude.
Deferring admission to law school, Ponnuru instead took a job as a reporter for National Review, where he had interned after his junior year. His reporting soon drew attention from other conservatives, including Cruz, who had become a policy aide for George W. Bush’s nascent presidential campaign. “Ramesh was the journalist to whom we would most often turn with a really complicated story,” Cruz recalls, “with a story that involved significant policy nuance and complexity and that needed a reporter who could understand byzantine details.”
One lodestar of Ponnuru’s philosophy is his opposition to abortion. His first book, published in 2006, carried an uncharacteristically provocative title, The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life. In it he assails the above-named groups for supporting euthanasia and assisted suicide, as well as abortion. “Roe [v. Wade] should be overturned as an affront to the Constitution, justice, and democracy,” he declared in his opening chapter. The Party of Death received rave reviews from talk-radio stalwarts Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Ann Coulter, and also from William F. Buckley Jr., who predicted that Ponnuru’s book “will be accepted almost immediately as the seminal statement on human life.”
The book appeared shortly after Ponnuru’s decision to join the Catholic Church with his wife, April, now a senior adviser to the Conservative Reform Network, a nonprofit organization. They had been attending Mass for some time, he says, and having “loitered at the gate,” finally decided to join. Although the Catholic doctrine on abortion fit Ponnuru’s own views, he acknowledges that his faith has also shaped his politics, leading him, for example, to oppose capital punishment.
In 2014, Politico named the Ponnurus to its list of 50 Washington power brokers, calling them leaders of the “reformocon” movement seeking to redirect Republicans back toward Reaganism from their wandering in the post-Bush wilderness. That movement, as events have unfolded, has not fared very well.
In a mea culpa published in May 2016, Ponnuru set out some of the things he had gotten wrong about Trump’s candidacy, misjudging his appeal to moderate Republicans. “Perhaps my most fundamental mistake,” he wrote with unaccustomed bitterness, “was to overestimate the will to live among Republican elites.”
Withstanding considerable pressure to back the Republican nominee, including a barrage of racist tweets and emails, Ponnuru announced shortly before the election that he would vote for McMullin, a former CIA operative, instead. “You have no obligation to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump,” he wrote in Bloomberg. “If you vote for one of the less prominent candidates ... no lightning bolt will fell you and no policeman will knock on your door.”
Still, Trump’s victory left Ponnuru, like many traditional conservatives, doing a lot of soul-searching. “I think we fell into the bad habit of overestimating our reach with the general public,” he acknowledges. “So we have to start from an accurate assessment of where we are. We also need an accurate assessment of this president, who is not fundamentally a philosophical person and whose instincts and impulses are not ours.” He believes conservatives should adopt more of a “transactional relationship” with Trump, working with him where it suits both their interests without fearing to oppose him when they disagree.
What’s a conservative columnist to do? “I am obviously going to keep calling them as I see them and advocating what I consider to be good ideas,” he insists, “but in this climate, it is particularly important to keep a level head.” So far, he has supported several of Trump’s Cabinet appointments, as well as his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He opposes Trump’s immigration ban, saying that it “has looked more like an attempt to make good on an ill-considered campaign promise than to figure out a sensible way of protecting our national security.”
An open question is whether more seasoned figures in the administration, with a sounder grasp of policy, will control the new president’s worst impulses.
“I think we all have to hope that,” Ponnuru says. “But I just think that at the end of the day, he is the president. The presidency has not, as far as I can recall, ever worked great wonders in improving somebody’s character.”
Mark F. Bernstein ’83 is PAW’s senior writer.