Goin’ Backstory

In the October episode, we talk with Kathy Kiely ’77, an editor at BillMoyers.com, about the nine Princeton alumni who’ve run for president, representing nearly every part of the American political spectrum. Columnist Gregg Lange ’70 shares his thoughts on recent PAW stories about the beginning of coeducation and a 19th century standoff between students and librarians. And sports editor Brett Tomlinson does his best to avoid ranking the greatest athletes in Princeton history.

Kathy Kiely ’77
Helen Hausmann

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BT: Hi everyone, it’s Brett Tomlinson, the digital editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Later in this episode, I’ll be speaking with Gregg Lange in our regular segment covering Princeton history in the news and in the magazine. But we’re going to begin with an election-themed interview with one of our freelance contributors: Kathy Kiely ’77, who is a veteran political journalist who has been on a number of PAW’s Reunions panels. I had a great time speaking with her about Princetonians who’ve run for president, from 1796 to 2016. I hope you enjoy the interview.

I’m here with Kathy Kiely.  She is an editor for BillMoyers.com, and her story for the Oct. 26 issue of Princeton Alumni Weekly is called “Princeton for President.”  It’s online now at paw.princeton.edu.  It’s really a great overview of the nine alumni who have run for president, but Kathy, I know you took quite a deep dive in researching these things, some things that didn’t make it into the final article.  I know you’ve read loads of Daily Princetonian stories, you listened to speeches, you’ve even checked out the FBI files of one of the candidates.  What stands out in your mind of things that you turned up along the way that really kind of captured your interest?

KK: Well, this was a really fun project to do, because it is a diverse lot of people, and in many ways, the Princetonians who have run for president, both those who have won and those who have not, really embody a lot of the debates that we continue to have today.  And of course, being Princeton characters, there are characters, and I would say probably my most fun find was FOIA’d  copies of FBI files on Norman Thomas, who ran multiple times.  I think he may have run for president, at least on a national ticket, more often than anyone, certainly more often than anyone from Princeton.  And he was the head of the Socialist Party for many, many decades, and as a result, the FBI was tracking him.  Of course, his career intersected with the McCarthy era, so it’s really funny.  Someone FOIA’d his records and put them on the Internet archive, and they’re really interesting to read, because you can see that all of these agents were assigned to carefully go and listen to Norman Thomas’s speeches and look at the kinds of things he was reading and writing, and really none of them find anything terrible to say about this man.  The kinds of things that Norman Thomas advocated for really became part of mainstream party platforms later — it was really a social safety net.  And that’s reflected in both the FBI reports as well as subsequent tributes.  When Norman Thomas got older and was kind of seen as a senior figure, and then when he died, he was widely acclaimed by people across the political spectrum for having been a visionary. 

So that’s really interesting, and I would say the other amusing thing, which I got a big laugh out of — another Princetonian who ran for president, Steve Forbes, who obviously Princeton readers know represents the other end of the ideological spectrum.  And Steve Forbes was very fascinated when he heard that I had been reading Norman Thomas’s FBI files, and he asked me, “What was the most interesting thing?”  And I said, “Well, I concluded, based on the material in the files, that the FBI was singlehandedly keeping The Daily Worker afloat, because they seem to have a lot of subscriptions to the paper. And I think Steve Forbes, being a publisher himself of a magazine, really appreciated that.

I would say the most poignant interview, to me, was the interview with Ralph Nader, who I think does not want to say that -- he certainly doesn’t say straightforwardly that the 2000 campaign and the perception that he threw the — helped throw the election to George W. Bush — he doesn’t want to say that that was a watershed moment in his career, but it clearly was.  And he does talk about how he feels he’s been ostracized by people who were his political allies since that moment.  And so that, I thought, was poignant, and it was interesting — again, when we talk about paths crossing, many, many of the Princetonians had — there were overlaps.  So James Madison and Aaron Burr were at Princeton together.  Norman Thomas was at Princeton when Woodrow Wilson was president.  So you see, it’s almost like a baton being handed off, generation to generation.  And one of the most vivid examples of that, to me, was Ralph Nader told me in the interview that Norman Thomas spoke on the Princeton campus when he was a student there.  And Ralph Nader, being Ralph Nader, managed to insert himself at the great man’s side and was walking — walked Thomas back to his accommodations, which were at the Princeton Inn.  And while they were walking, Nader asked Thomas what he felt was his greatest accomplishment, and Thomas told him it was getting the major parties to adopt his ideas.  And of course, many of Norman Thomas’ ideas became part of the New Deal, part of the progressive philosophy of the Democratic Party, and Nader said to me, somewhat wistfully, he was, he felt he was unable to do that.

BT: This group of nine alumni really covers quite a remarkable range.  You know, a Socialist, a Green Party and Independent candidate, Democrats, Republicans of different eras — obviously it’s covering more than 200 years of American history.  Are there any common threads that kind of bring this group of Princetonians together?

KK: I think they were all iconoclasts.  They were definitely not party men.  Even people who — and we have to say “men,” of course, because there has yet to be a Princetonian woman running for the nation’s highest office — but they were definitely not people who toed anybody’s line.  And even when you see someone like Woodrow Wilson, who obviously won the presidency, and before that won his party’s nomination, he did so by winning the support of party regulars but then thumbing their noses at them — thumbing his nose at them.  And that was a typical pattern, I think, with a lot of Princetonians.  They tended not to play the patronage game; they tended to be a little aloof from sort of the backslapping types of politics.  They tended to be a little bit more cerebral and maybe a little purist, I would say, is maybe a good word for it.

BT: I think if you scan all of the coverage of the current presidential campaign, you’d probably see Ralph Nader’s name the most, just because of mentions of the effect of a third-party candidate.  But are there other legacies that stand out in your mind in terms of ideas or positions that continue on to the current state of politics?

KK: Well, the most obvious legacies, of course, are the founding of the country itself, because two of our Princeton presidential candidates, Aaron Burr and James Madison, were intimately involved in the founding of the United States, and both intimately involved really in the establishment of the political party system that exists to this day.  Both of them were — they started out as what were called Anti-Federalists, so they were opposed to what they saw as an over-centralization of power among some of George Washington’s allies.  And it was really Madison who, interestingly, was very hostile to the idea of faction, but yet he and Thomas Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, Aaron Burr were the founders of what now is the Democratic Party.  It started out being called the Republican Party, and that was really a reflection — a nod to the republic of France.  But they were very skeptical of centralized power, worried that some of the Federalists — they weren’t hostile to Washington himself; everybody loved George Washington, but Alexander Hamilton, of Broadway fame, and others in Washington’s cabinet, they were afraid that they were becoming too powerful, and even thinking about reestablishing a monarchy.  So really the origins of the two-party system that we have today go all the way back to James Madison, who, incidentally, hired a Princetonian classmate named Philip Freneau to establish a newspaper for the nascent Democratic-Republican Party.  And one of the biographers of James Madison suggests that Freneau’s newspaper really is the origins of today’s MSNBC and Fox News — in other words, a media that was created to propagandize for a political faction.

BT: It is fascinating to think about that, the effect that the media was having even back then.

KK: Well, it’s reassuring in a way.  I think when we think about doom and gloom and how people are concerned about the tone of politics today, and not to say that they shouldn’t be, but we’ve been through this before.

BT: Good to know.  Obviously your focus was on those who ran for president; I’m curious if you can think of Princeton alumni who made a real impact on politics but never got the chance, or never chose to run.

KK: Well, it’s interesting when you look through the history of people who have run for president.  They’re filled with paths that cross with other Princetonians.  So Adlai Stevenson is a really good example of that, and in some ways Adlai Stevenson owes his career to another Princetonian.  There was another Princetonian who, when Adlai Stevenson was about to jump up a bureaucratic level, said no and blocked him.  And as a result, he went back and ran for governor of Illinois and went on to make history. And I would say that — I would say somebody like Stevenson, who ran twice and failed, still had a huge impact on politics, because Stevenson was one of the most outspoken opponents of McCarthyism.  And I think that’s what really made his legacy, that he was such a clarion voice against that kind of demagoguery that he became an idol of many, many people, even though he never became president.  And I would say that kind of idealistic and altruistic willingness to throw yourself in front of a popular train is a legacy that lives to today.  It was really a profile in courage.

BT: And at the same time, obviously, you had a legacy in the United Nations as well, fighting the communist threat from abroad.

WATCH Adlai Stevenson II ’22’s Oct. 25, 1962, speech to the United Nations

KK: Yeah, well, that was one of the funny aspects, or ironic aspects, of Stevenson’s story, that his political opponents tried to label him as soft on communism, and then one of the highlight moments of his career — and there’s wonderful video of this on YouTube, if you wanted to share it with folks who are reading this online — but he actually faced off against his Soviet counterpart during the Cuban Missile Crisis and became a hero, he said, to all of his conservative friends in Illinois, on the cocktail party circuit, because he really took this guy down in public in a very dramatic way.  And there’s also a quote from John F. Kennedy, who, of course, was briefly a Princetonian and was the president, the president when Adlai Stevenson served at the UN, and he said, “I didn’t know Adlai had it in him.”

BT: I think that’s a great place to wrap this up. Kathy, thank you so much for joining us.

KK: Well, it was a great project, it was a lot of fun.  And Princeton may not have as many presidents as Harvard, but Princeton has certainly made some very interesting -- much more interesting than I knew when I started this project -- contributions to the US political landscape.

BT: I am back with Gregg Lange ’70, our history columnist. Gregg, welcome.

GL: And the same to you, big guy.

BT: This is the part of the podcast where we talk about some of the history-related items in the news and particularly in the magazine. The Oct. 5 cover story was about former Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel’s new book about coeducation at the elite colleges in the late ’60s/early ’70s, particularly looking at Princeton, which is a place very familiar to her from her many years on the faculty and of course as a dean. It’s really interesting to look at what was going on in the decision-making process, and that comes through in the excerpt from the book.

Gregg, you were on campus at the time, not necessarily in the meeting rooms that Dean Malkiel has looked into through her research, so it’s a bit of a different perspective. But what was your take on her exploration of this really fascinating era of Princeton history?

GL: One thing that struck me immediately when I saw the column was a little surprise that no one had really written on this before. If there’s any kind of authoritative piece of literature out there related to this, I’ve never seen it, and I actually dug around a little and looked for it. I don’t think there is one. So, talk about something that’s way overdue for a little historical insight. I give Nancy a great — and I call her that because she came to Princeton our senior year, she goes back to us — anyway, the fact that she’s done this is a great idea and a fabulous insight. I also think it’s got some real challenges to it, historically.

Probably the big advantage, in focusing on Princeton, is that the Patterson Report, which is discussed in the article, that was done at Princeton by the Patterson Committee — Gardner Patterson was the chair of the trustees — did a much more thorough job than was being done in all the other schools that were considering this, and in fact most of the rest of them grabbed it and followed it, and if it had been a lousy document, there would have been yelling and screaming all over the place. As it was, it set up a really positive experience for Princeton; there were a lot of bumps along the way because a lot of people didn’t know what they were doing, and didn’t even claim to. But it really set the groundwork for this whole movement in U.S. higher education in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The study itself is fascinating. I would recommend it to anybody, and I thank Nancy profusely for having written it.

BT: Also in the Oct. 5 issue we have a great look back at a little slice of Princeton history in the 1880s. Princetonians, I guess, are not completely unique in this, but there is a longstanding love of open-stack libraries on campus. Gregg, I know that it’s something you valued and still value, but did you know that it went all the way back to 1885?

GL: I had never heard of this instance before. I give John Weeren great credit for having dug it up. It shows his many hours in the guts of Mudd Library were very well spent. And it’s very fascinating on the level that, for many historical reasons, the Princeton undergraduates’ fixation on going in and browsing around the library in open stacks is extremely well established and has always been taken as not only a right but a rite of passage. It doesn’t take much to imagine what facing that sense off with an organized head librarian who had just come up with his own exhaustive way of cataloging books and was so proud of it he didn’t want anybody to touch or disturb the books — you imagine how well that played among the student body.

The fact that it goes all the way back to Chancellor Green is hilarious, and I’m sure the same was true in Pyne Library, which is now East Pyne, when that was the main library from 1897 to 1948, and then of course Firestone, which for a long time — I’m not sure whether it still is, technically — for a long time was the largest open-stack library of any sort in the world.

And I think to be fair to all concerned, we probably ought to give great credit to the librarians from that day to this, for the last 150 years, for picking up all the misfiled books and putting them back where they belong, because that’s got to be the most unappetizing job ever created in the universe.

BT: Definitely a thankless job. There are many thankless jobs on campus that go unnoticed, but that’s high on the list.

The last thing I wanted to bring up was your column that went online with the Oct. 5 issue. And I think you’re kinda calling me out, you’re calling out the PAW sports writers, editors over the years for never coming up with a list of the all-time greats of Princeton athletics. Is that true, is that what you’re getting at here?

GL: Well yes, that’s part of it. The fact that you value your life, and your insurance policy might not be all that it’s quite written up to be is not much of an excuse for not taking a stand. But what I did dig up after 10 years — and it certainly ought to be redone, either by the PAW or the Princetonian — is a stab at a list of the 20 greatest athletes in Princeton history. And even just saying that, there are people out there listening to the podcast saying oh, heaven’s sake, there’s going to be blood on the badge.

BT: Yeah, and I was thinking, one of the constructs for this type of construction is to talk about the “Mount Rushmore” of — people will talk about the Mount Rushmore of Philadelphia sports or Chicago sports. If you look at the Mount Rushmore of Princeton athletics, it starts out pretty easily when you think about Bill Bradley ’65 and Dick Kazmaier ’52. And then I guess you probably have to put Hobey Baker 1914 there; not many Princeton athletes have a building named after them. And then after that it gets really, really complicated.

GL: Well the Prince came up with Yasser El Halaby ’06, which is certainly a very legitimate argument—

BT: I mean, he only won the individual national championship every year that he was in college, so that speaks for itself.

But you also bring up Ashleigh Johnson ’17. To be the world’s best women’s water polo player while an undergraduate, that’s extraordinary, and then of course winning an Olympic gold medal, and then coming back to Princeton. It’s a really fascinating discussion to have, to think about where she ranks in the all-time greats.

[In the column], you mention some others: the pro athletes like Chris Young ’02, Geoff Petrie ’70, Brian Taylor ’84; other stars in international competition like Lynn Jennings ’83 and Nelson Diebel ’96; and then you look at the great teams of Princeton history, in men’s lacrosse, women’s lacrosse, field hockey — national championship teams. So it speaks to the quality of the 150-some years of Princeton athletics. It’s not easy to get your head around where a ranking of this group would fit in.

GL: Especially, and of course you don’t go into it thinking this way, but in a school with 37 varsity sports, if you say who are the 20 best athletes, you’re 17 scoops in the hole to start with, right?

And it just gets worse from there. It’s a very tough thing to get your head around. You have to compare individual sports, which is the Yasser El Halaby question, with team sports. You have to compare results at Princeton to results further on afterwards for many of the athletes.

The things that impressed me most about the Princetonian list is that one of their top 10 is Robert Garrett 1897, who won a medal in the 1896 Olympics. I thought that was extraordinarily insightful. I mean, they really took this seriously, and the did a very good job, but of course it’s one of those tasks that if you do a very good job, everybody’s going to yell at you anyway. Which is of course why Brett and the rest of our crack sports staff have never attempted it, I think.   

What I would say additionally is that I took the opportunity to tie this into the honoring of athletes, which at Princeton really has taken the form of retiring Bill Bradley and Dick Kazmaier’s coincident No. 42 across all the sports. Really the only thing like that that I’m aware of generally is Major League Baseball’s retiring of Jackie Robinson’s number across all the major league baseball teams, which by complete coincidence is No. 42. And the reason I got thinking about Ashleigh in regard to this is that Mariano Rivera, again by complete coincidence, was the last major leaguer ever to wear No. 42 on his own in a game. It got me thinking that No. 42 at Princeton might be better used the way that No. 22 is on the Syracuse lacrosse team: Rather than just retiring it for ever and ever, which is certainly an honor but sort of just sits there on the wall in a way, it might be better to, in very extraordinary circumstances, to allow one athlete in exceptional circumstances to wear that number when he or she was deserving of wearing it while they were still at Princeton. And in that regard, Ashleigh is by far the strongest example I’ve seen in many many years at Princeton. I think, frankly, she ought to wear No. 42 on her cap next year, which would be fine except according to the NCAA it’s illegal — goalies have to wear No. 1, which is actually pointless overkill because they actually wear different colored caps.

BT: It’s definitely the type of thing that you’d want to reserve for something extraordinarily special like having an Olympic gold medalist come back and suit up for a Princeton team, which by the way has not happened since the ’64-65 basketball season.

GL: I was going to say, Bill Bradley must be the last one.

BT: Yes. When Ashleigh was honored at the football game against Lehigh, she came out with her medal at halftime and got a standing ovation. And Jerry Price from the athletic department mentioned that great little tidbit in the introduction, so hat-tip to Jerry on that one.

GL: Absolutely wonderful. And the whole career-arc analogy between her and Bill Bradley to date is really quite thought-provoking. And if you’ve never seen her play, for heaven’s sake go down to DeNunzio Pool in the spring. She’s going to have a very deep, veteran team behind her, or in front of her, I’m sorry. Watch this team. They’re great, she’s magnificent. You can’t believe intellectually that a goalie, from the rear, can actually control the pace of a water polo game — she absolutely does, she dominates the game from the goal. It’s really worth seeing live a couple times while she’s still on campus and you can catch her.

BT: Great advice. As always, Gregg, it’s a lot of fun to speak with you.

GL: And we’ll be looking for your list any time now.

BT: I’ll get to work on that. We’ll see what I can come up with between now and November.

I think that does it for this episode of Goin’ Backstory.

GL: This is Gregg Lange from the Great Class of 1970, reminding you again that Goin’ Backstory is an inimitable podcast from those kind folks at the Princeton Alumni Weekly.