Want to be a politician? As the popular stereotype has it, Yalies entering politics are about as common as prepubescent Abercrombie-shoppers-in-training ravaging the clothing racks at Hollister & Co. From John Kerry ’66 to George W. Bush ’68, it seems like you can’t turn on C-Span without seeing a son of Eli.
Yale has cultivated generation after generation of young political leaders, who begin careers in public service at all levels of government: appointed or elected, lobbyist or insider, local or national. Each politician must choose a path of his or her own, but for the many aspiring politicians at Yale, here is a concise guide on how to begin the arduous climb toward the top of the political food chain.
The first step: Take advantage of Yale’s academic and extracurricular resources
Michael Rubin ’94 GRD ’99, currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said Yale’s academic coursework, with its strong emphasis on practical knowledge, is particularly beneficial for preparing students for a career in public service.
“Too many universities now are focused too much in theory, and Yale tends to be a little bit more grounded in reality,” he said. “As universities shift towards theory, it makes their students irrelevant. The students come out feeling like they know a lot when they actually know nothing.”
Rubin also said Yale’s writing-intensive coursework can lead to prolific rewards in the public sphere.
“People can be brilliant, but if they can’t write they’re worth nothing,” he said.
In addition, Eric Liu ’90, a former speech writer and policy advisor during the Clinton administration, stressed the importance of extracurricular activities in college. Liu said the extracurricular atmosphere at the University is unique because it fosters personal initiative.
“It’s such a culture where people get an idea to create something, and they find the peers and the resources to make it happen,” Liu said. “[The entrepreneurial spirit is] something that I’ve carried with me my entire life.”
But not all extracurriculars are as valuable as others, Rubin said. He found his time working for the Yale Herald — where he said he developed his writing skills — to be much more useful than his participation in the Yale Political Union.
“I did the Political Union, but it was a lot of hot air,” he said. “People talking for the sake of talking, and that doesn’t always pan out in the real world.”
Step two: Dive into internship experiences
During spring break of his freshman year at Yale, Liu participated in an externship program sponsored by Undergraduate Career Services. Not knowing what to expect, he was placed at the Washington, D.C. office of David L. Boren, a U.S. senator from Oklahoma at the time.
“There was nothing about my externship with Senator Boren that was incredibly premeditated and part of a 10-year plan,” Liu said. “I didn’t know where it was going to lead, I didn’t know how I was going to like it.”
As it turns out, Liu’s externship with Boren was only the start of an extensive career in politics. After graduating with a degree in history, Liu moved to Washington, D.C., to continue working with the senator, a job which served as a good springboard to other positions in politics.
Liu’s experience working for Boren proved formative in deciding his career goals, he said.
“It was an amazing experience, and I kept in touch with Boren all throughout my Yale years,” Liu said. “And that’s what led to my going to work for him after graduation.”
In the mid 1990s, Liu was appointed as a foreign policy speech writer for then-president William Clinton LAW ’73, and after attending Harvard Law School, returned to Washington to serve as Clinton’s deputy domestic advisor.
For others, internship experiences can help refine career goals or reverse them altogether. David Pepper ’93 LAW ’99 majored in history and international studies while an undergraduate at Yale. After graduation, his interest in international studies took him to Russia, where he worked at a St. Petersburg think tank led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Pepper’s work in urban policy in St. Petersburg sparked a marked shift in career interests from the global to the local.
“[The trip] struck my own interest in coming back to my own city and making it go forward,” he said.
After graduating from Yale Law School, Pepper, a former managing editor for the News, returned to Cincinnati and successfully ran for city councilman. He is currently campaigning as a Democratic candidate in this fall’s mayoral race.
Step three: Actually pursue an office in the public arena, appointed or elected
For some, like New Haven Ward 1 Alderman Ben Healey ’04, the political campaigns can start early.
During his freshman year, Healey became a member of activist organizations on campus, such as the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project and other Dwight Hall organizations. Encouraged by an upperclassman friend, Healey decided to run for office and won the Democratic Party’s endorsement and the position of alderman in the August after his freshman year.
Healey said while many Yalies hoping to enter public service are lured toward the glitz of national politics, an effective politician starts at the local level.
“A lot of people get turned on by national politics or flowery rhetoric and debates, but at the heart of a good politician is someone who really wants to talk to people and really fights for the community in which they live,” he said. “A good political activist will be a grassroots organizer first and build a base from there.”
While Pepper said the participation of younger politicians is especially necessary in the formulation of urban policy, he warned that for any politician, age should not become one’s defining characteristic.
“The strongest attributes that you’re looking for are that you have good ideas, that you have energy, and that you can lead,” he said.
Finally, those interested in pursuing a political career should be wary of several caveats.
Pepper said it is important to gain a firm grasp on one’s interests in policymaking before jumping into public office.
“Don’t get so far ahead of yourself that you’re running for office before you’re ready,” he said. “If you jump the gun, you may be nipping your career in the bud – you need to go to some community with some real credibility… and not just look like someone who just has political ambition.”
Liu also warned that Yalies must approach politics with humility: a Yale degree can only take you so far.
“It’s important for people coming out of Yale to not go in assuming that you’re the smartest person in the room,” Liu said. “You got to go in as a voracious, curious learner all the time.”
Above all, however, Yalies must remember that there are many means to the same goals, Liu said.
“I don’t think that there’s a single path to politics,” he said. “You need to follow your passion, your sense of how you can contribute, and trust that the skills and self-awareness that you picked up at Yale will guide you along the way.”