Two Harvard Men Battle For President

Liam Day asserts that as little as they or their supporters might like to admit, Obama and Romney have a lot in common.

Robert Benchley famously remarked, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t,” despite which I’m about to divide at least a subset of the world into two kinds of people. With less than a week to go before the election, perhaps that is as it should be, for what is an election in a two-party country but the division of the world into two kinds of people?

To one side of the divide stands the incumbent President, Barack Obama, whose life wound its way from Hawaii to Indonesia and back, to Los Angeles and New York to Chicago and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and back before his election to the United States Senate in 2004.

To the other side stands the challenger, Mitt Romney, whose own life story is almost as circuitous, winding as it did from Michigan to California to France to Utah to Belmont, Massachusetts, before his election as Governor in 2002.

As little as they or their supporters might like to admit, these two men have a lot in common. They are both cautious, eminently rational men, who have, despite their campaign personas, always relied on a sufeit of information before making decisions. They are also both outsiders, the one due to his race, the other his religion.

They are also both outsiders in a political sense, neither man having been born or raised in the state they came to represent. They symbolize what might be called a new politics, one antithetical to Tip O’Neill’s maxim. For both President Obama and Governor Romney, all politics is national, and this should hardly suprise us, for I suspect their views of politics, as opposed to their political views, were shaped, at least in part, by their time at Harvard, where both men went to graduate school.

Members of the Harvard community like to think of it as a national institution. In 1908, at the College’s commencement ceremonies, one of its graduates and a guest speaker that day, Governor Curtis Guild of Massachusetts, offered these words: “Harvard is not merely Massachusetts, Harvard is not merely New England, Harvard is the ideal of America.”
It was perhaps easier to offer those words then, when the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Theodore Roosevelt, was a fellow alum. Harvard could revel in its favorite son’s national stature, no less so because he represented such a robust version of the Harvard man, bestriding the continent, speaking softly and carrying a big stick. He would also, however, go on to disparage his own Harvard education in his autobiography, saying that “there was very little in my actual studies which helped me in after life.”

Not for Teddy the life of scholarship, or at least the stereotype of it. For him, learning needed to be balanced by activity. He was a doer, a man of action, a man of business. The dichotomy that framed his world is one that persists still, though maybe it is one that existed well before young Theodore ever stepped foot in the Yard.


Harvard is not an easy place to embrace, probably because it doesn’t easily embrace its students. Harvard students are extraordinarily competitive. There is an episode of Sex in the City in which Charlotte dates a Harvard graduate who is so competitive he goes around punching people. Though the caricature is obviously an exaggeration, it contains a kernel of truth.

Among the students who attend Harvard University or one of its many graduate schools, you will find young men and women who have already started businesses, started non-profits, written novels, starred in movies, been elected to office, performed with symphony orchestras, and achieved success in almost every conceivable field of human endeavor.

For the promising student who, though he might be promising, led a comparatively average existence in high school or college—skipping class now and then, drinking beer at parties on the weekend, perseverating over whether the boy or girl he likes likes him, all the time managing to maintain a pretty decent GPA, which somehow qualifies him for acceptance into one of the world’s premier educational institutions—the certainty with which his classmates pursue their endeavors leaves him at a competitive disadvantage, one that will only grow after graduation if he hasn’t used his time at Harvard to, for lack of a better term, divine his path.

For the competition among classmates gets fiercer as they get older, even if it is only internal and remains unstated. Harvard graduates are constantly comparing their seemingly meager achievements to the exploits of their fellow alums: the former roommate who is now an orthopedic surgeon, the old teammate who makes partner at a major law firm, the best friend finishing his fourth book.

In the first piece I ever wrote for the Good Men Project I wrote of the friends who have known since they were nine what they would pursue in life and how that knowledge imbued almost everything they did. I was referring to many of the friends I made at Harvard. Mitt Romney reminds me of so many of them.


The future Republican nominee arrived at Harvard’s Business School in 1972, the son of a former Republican Presidential candidate. He was 25 years old and already married. He had spent two years in France on his Mormon mission between his first year of college at Stanford and his upperclass years at Brigham Young University and had, near the end of his mission, escaped alive from a devastating car crash that took the life of one his car’s occupants. He had collected enough experience to know exactly what he wanted to do, that like his father, George, who had risen, despite lacking a college degree to become CEO of American Motors, he wanted to pursue a career in business.

Romney earned two degrees at Harvard. He enrolled in a dual-degree program and in addition to his MBA, he earned his J.D. from the law school. In fact, despite being heavily recruited out of the business school and ultimately landing a job with the Boston Consulting Group, he took and passed the Michigan bar as back up just in case his business career failed. It is a fact that humanizes the younger version of Mitt Romney, that supremely confident human being who, despite his confidence, wasn’t 100% sure he would succeed in business. Perhaps these are the doubts any son has when he pursues the career of a successful father, for into the mix of the usual fears about whether he is making the right professional choices are thrown the Oedipal struggles of wrestling that father’s resume.

Despite his moment of doubt, I think it’s probably safe to say that Mitt Romney would empathize with Theodore Roosevelt’s desire to be seen as a man of action and not one of thought. That is not to say that Romney isn’t a smart man. He clearly is. But, like the 26th president, he has also disparaged his business and law school alma mater in an attempt to paint a more virile picture of himself. In a speech back in April, he said, “We have a President who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard. . .”

Now, Mitt Romney may, in fact, be right. David Nyhan, a former Boston Globe columnist who grew up near the city he later wrote about and who attended the school as an undergraduate, once advised me, when he learned I too had crossed the river to go to college, to be more Boston than Harvard. It’s advice I’ve tried to follow.

But if President Obama spent too much time there, what does it say for MItt Romney, whose two degrees required four years, one more than the three the former community organizer spent in law school?


If David Maraniss’ biography of the future President is to be believed, Barack Obama, 27, was still seeking his path when he arrived in Cambridge in 1988. He had spent a total of eight years in the continental United States: two at Occidental College outside Los Angeles, two at Columbia in New York, a third year in New York working for Business International, and then three in Chicago working as a community organizer.

It’s doubtful that Obama knew what he wanted to do with a law degree once he earned it. He believed he was destined for greatness, with intimations even that he could one day be President, but to that point his life had been more a process of eliminating choices than making them.

He discarded the suburban atmosphere of Occidental for the urban one of Columbia, only to remain at a remove from the city where he lived and the college he attended. He took a job with Business International, a news and information service for international corporations that paid up to $120,000 per year for subscriptions to the company’s publications, only to quit after a year without another job in the offing. He liked being a community organizer, felt that on the streets and in the housing developments of Chicago’s South Side he could do more good than in an office in Midtown Manhattan, but simultaneously understood the limits of what he could achieve on the margins, almost immediately recognizing that good intentions needed to be wed to power if they were to come to fruition.

In other words, Barack Obama came to Harvard as a seeker. Whereas his opponent, Mitt Romney, came to Harvard with a plan, which he almost immediately began to execute, the 44th President came to Harvard with an idea. He lacked the plan.


Though Theodore Roosevelt opposed the man of action to the man of thought, the man in battle’s midst to the critic on the sidelines, I choose to adhere to a slightly different dichotomy, precisely because it is unfair to the Republican challenger, whether or not he’d like to admit it, to claim he isn’t a man of thought as well as one of action, and inaccurate to claim the opposite of his opponent, who, despite his sometimes pedantic style, has launched more drone attacks against terrorist targets than his predecessor, viewed in some circles on the political left as a warmonger.

At Harvard there are pursuers and there are seekers and the role the school plays in their different developments is, though not completely dissimilar, distinct enough. For the pursuers, it is that necessary first step on the path they have traced on the map of their futures. It is the line on their resumes, the connections they develop, that help open the doors they will need to walk through to follow the plan. It is, in other words, a tactical gambit.

For the seekers, though it too will be a line on their resumes and offer access to connections undreamt by most, Harvard helps them refine their ideas and outline the plan they will follow after they graduate. It is, in other words, strategic. And here, perhaps more than in any other dimension, is where these two men, so similar in so many ways, diverge.

Mitt Romney is a tactician, and a brilliant one at that. Bain Capital was not his idea, but when asked by his boss to take on the challenge of building the private equity firm, he succeeded beyond even, I suspect, Bill Bain’s wildest dreams. The ideas that, cobbled together, comprise the universal healthcare law he signed as Governor were not his, but Mitt Romney is as responsible as any of Massachusetts’ Democratic legislators for its passage.

But it is his tactical ability that so hampers him on the campaign trail. What many pundits and voters perceive as his inconsistency is, in fact, no more than a collection of tactical decisions. To challenge Ted Kennedy in 1994 for his seat in the United States Senate as a pro-choice Republican made complete tactical sense. To run in the Republican Presidential primaries as a staunchly pro-life Republican also makes sense. That the two might not make sense in the same candidate is a conclusion that can be reached only at a strategic remove. One must be able to see in 1994 that he might want to run for President in 2008 or 2012.

Conversely, what hampers the President, both in office and on the campaign trail, is his focus on strategy, too often at the expense of tactics. He famously left the details of the stimulus and healthcare legislations to Congress to hash out, getting in passage bloated bills it was too late to do anything about. On the campaign trail, he can’t seem to translate strategy into concrete tactics he can easily explain to voters because he either hasn’t yet outlined the necessary steps the country needs to take to pursue his strategy or he gets frustrated that voters can’t see what is so obvious to him, that we’re sacrificing the pawn for the opponent’s rook five moves down.

We can’t fully attribute Romney’s tactical acumen or Obama’s strategic bend to Harvard. One’s personality is well-formed by the time one is 25 or 27. But the two men do mark very distinct Harvard types, types that, because of the personalities they brought with them to graduate school, Harvard only honed to a finer edge. It is reported that Romney thrived on the business school’s case study model, one that emphasizes tactical decision-making. It is also reported that Obama thrived on the law school’s socratic model of debate, one that emphasizes the theoretical.

And we can’t fully attribute either man’s future desire to run for President to Harvard. After all, Romney’s father ran for President and one can assume, Harvard or no Harvard, it was from him that the Republican nominee inherited the ambition. And, as mentioned in Maraniss’s biography, the thought of running for President had already crossed Obama’s mind long before he got to Cambridge.

But what we can attribute to Harvard is the fan that has, since they first walked onto campus some 40 and 24 years ago respectively, fed the flames of their ambitions. Among Romney’s classmates at the business and law schools were the son of the U.N. Secretary-General and the son-in-law of the sitting President. In the class behind him was another future President, a different future President than the one he seeks to unseat, George W. Bush.

For President Obama, one has only to go to the Wikipedia page that is entirely devoted to listing the famous graduates of Harvard Law School. It is against them that he, or any other graduate, must compare him or herself.

So here they stand, mere days until the election that will decide what the last line will be on each of their already rather impressive resumes. For, pursuer or seeker, this is their last professional foray. Oh there will be books and speeches, but neither of them will be running again for elective office and I severely doubt they will be going back to practice law or run a private equity firm.

And there is some irony to the fact that the man against whom each of them will be compared on Tuesday also hails from Harvard. For if they are anything like most of their fellow alums, Barack Obama, the seeker, and Mitt Romney, the pursuer, have been comparing themselves to other Harvard grads for pretty much all of their adult lives.


In addition to David Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story, Michael Kranish’s and Scott Helman’s The Real Romney, and Kim Townsend’s Manhood at Harvard were used as sources for biographical detail and quotes.

photo: League of Women Voters California / flickr

About Liam Day

Liam Day has been a youth worker, teacher, campaign manager, political pundit, communications director, and professional basketball player. His poems have appeared at Slow Trains Apt, and Wilderness House Literary Review. His op-eds and essays have appeared in Annalemma Stymie, the Boston Globe and Boston Herald. He lives in Boston, where he works as a public health professional. He is the Sports Editor at The Good Men Project. You can follow him on Twitter at @LiamDay7.


  1. fine read, i really enjoyed this

  2. AnonymousDog says:

    Does going to grad school or law school at Harvard, after getting a Bachelor’s degree elsewhere, make one a “Harvard Man”?

    Roosevelt, by the way, went to Harvard as an undergrad, and went to law school at Columbia, the reverse of Obama.

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