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reed magazine logoSummer 2008

The Politicals by Juliette Guilbert í89

On and Off the Campaign Trail, Reedies are Working to Change the Political Landscape this Election Year

Compared to some other schools, Reed—a place where students float around in the theoretical ether for four years—can seem isolated from the world of political praxis. Notwithstanding the occasional occupation of a college building, most Reed students spend more time in the library than taking it to the streets.

“I try to get military people in front of [Obama] who disagree with his views or mine. You benefit a lot from being advised by people who donít see the world the way you do.”
Richard Danzig ’65

Barack Obama and Richard Danzig, AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

But not all of them stay that way. During this election year, we tracked down a group of Reedies who have chosen politics as their vocation. The alumni directory lists a smattering of Reed grads who have actually held (or are seeking) elected office, including former seven-term Michigan Congressman Howard Wolpe ’60, current Oregon House Speaker Pro Tem Diane Rosenbaum ’71, and Richard Hanna ’76, a Republican candidate for Congress in New York State this November (see story, page 46).

The six Reedies profiled here work largely behind the scenes as policy makers, political appointees, and strategists (except in the case of one, whose role it has been to make scenes—but more on that later). They describe themselves variously as Democrats, Republicans, progressives, libertarians, and revolutionaries. But in spite of this diversity of political alignments (and a 30-year age span), I was struck by how similar—how fundamentally Reedlike—they all seemed. All spoke in defense of rigorous, open inquiry and against political dogma. All advocated a posture of mutual respect and tolerance—dare I say it, an honor principle—between opposing political camps. If it takes four years in the ether to instill these principles, it seems well worth it.

The Statesman

Richard Danzig ’65

Richard Danzig is in full campaign mode, meeting and greeting guests at an Obama fundraiser being held in a swag-draped D.C. ballroom. He’s giving a speech tonight, and he’s just found out that he has to introduce all the other speakers, too. But even at the center of the campaign maelstrom, with staffers swarming and Washington players approaching from every direction with outstretched hands, he makes a point of calling me over when Madeleine Albright makes her entrance. And I’m not too jaded to be thrilled when I shake her hand.

During an interview earlier in the day at his Georgian house in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, Danzig told me repeatedly that he’s not much of a politician. Yet here he was—deftly glad-handing campaign donors, presenting dignitaries to the crowd, and making an out-of-town reporter feel welcome. It’s true, though, that his skill at calling the political horse race may be somewhat lacking: a year ago, he says, he was certain that Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic presidential nomination.

“She was like the Russian hockey team,” Danzig says—powerful, practiced, and well-funded. Nevertheless, Danzig threw in his lot with the underdog, becoming one of Barack Obama’s key national security advisers and surprising a lot of people, including himself. After all, he had been Bill Clinton’s Secretary of the Navy (1998–2001) and he liked and admired Hillary. “But she emphasized the notion that she was a fighter, and I think the U.S. needs a healer,” he says. Now, when friends say he’s got a knack for picking a winner, he demurs. “I’m not good at political prediction,” he says. “Basically, I’m not much into politics.”

That may seem like an odd self-characterization from a man whose name is being bandied about in connection with cabinet-level positions in an Obama administration (Secretary of Defense and national security adviser are the most frequent projections). But Danzig says that although he’s worked in and around the halls of power since the Carter administration, he’s always been motivated more by the process of government than by ideology or political ambition. Indeed, at times he’s appeared, well, slightly impolitic. As Secretary of the Navy, he raised some military hackles by likening the Pentagon bureaucracy to Soviet Communism and calling the Navy’s submarine force “a white male bastion”—statements made in the service of goals like improving the treatment of new sailors and expanding the role of women, goals he largely achieved. And, until recently, when it came to electoral politics, Danzig stayed strictly behind the scenes. “I was a guy who chipped in policy ideas at the margin,” he says.

The present administration changed that. “The Bush administration radicalized me,” he says. “I felt in 2004 that I needed to get out and do whatever I could to cause the administration not to be reelected.” He stumped for John Kerry in Florida—“You see the efficacy of my efforts,” he jokes—and now, as part of Obama’s foreign-policy inner circle, he devotes himself to raising money, speaking as the candidate’s surrogate in interviews and debates, and giving policy advice. What he appreciates most about Obama, he says, is his evenness of temperament and his pragmatism, his willingness to consider a range of viewpoints.

“I try to get military people in front of him who disagree with his views or mine,” says Danzig, a graduate of Yale Law School who consults with government agencies on terrorism when he’s not policy-advising. “You benefit a lot from being advised by people who don’t see the world the way you do.”

As for those rumors that he could be the next Secretary of Defense, Danzig is properly vague. “I would say that I’m in the lottery for jobs in the defense world,” he says. “And what those jobs are or why, I don’t know. I don’t think that anybody can realistically predict these things.” Despite the cabinet talk, though, Danzig shows no signs of blunting his iconoclasm. In June, he raised eyebrows once again when he called Winnie-the-Pooh a “fundamental text on national security” in a speech at the Center for New American Security (Rush Limbaugh’s response: “If Obama wins, we are deep in Pooh”). When I asked Danzig to comment on this kerfuffle, he said simply, “I think it’s good to poke fun at ourselves and our pretensions. All the more reason to do so if some people are so pretentious they can’t even see what’s happening.”

reed magazine logoSummer 2008