This week's New Yorker brings a John Cassidy profile of crusading NY attorney general Eliot Spitzer. (The piece isn't online). I didn't like Eliot Spitzer when he was using his eating club connections to get good coverage in The Daily Princetonian, and I don't like him now. It's the first of these facts that is relevant to a shocking (to me) misstatement of history in Cassidy's profile:
"Princeton at the start of the nineteen-eighties was hardly a hotbed of political activism. Candidates for office included a 'Jihad Party,' made up of hard-partying frat boys who wore towels and face masks. 'It wasn't an office that I recall many people fighting for,' one of Spitzer's fellow-students said. 'Even without Jihad, the slate would have been pretty thin."
The general point is correct: Only resume-polishing student-council weenies like Eliot Spitzer thought being president of the student body was a big deal. (Unlike many schools, Princeton had low student fees, so the student government didn't control a huge money pot.)
The descriptive facts are absurdly off--especially that self-serving line about "hard-partying frat boys." The Antarctica Liberation Front, whose then-dadaist slogan was Jihad (it's not so funny today), was a satirical party of--I say this in the most flattering and self-identifying way--nerds: brilliant, quirky, funny, intellectual guys who make Eliot Spitzer look like a frat boy.
Google turns up a brief reminscience in our class notes:
"WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE CAMPUS REVOLUTIONARIES? (PRINCETON STYLE, SORT OF)": On campus, he was a leader of the ever powerful Antarctica Liberation Front, the group that 18 years ago pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in USG election history by taking most of the top spots and, in one of the group's first official acts, declared war on The Hun School (reports were unsubstantiated that the ALF demanded a recount upon winning the election).
Another ALF platform plank was to annex all the spaces between the yellow lines on highways. After a year of Eliot Spitzer running student government, the ALF swept to electoral victory, dealing a humiliating rebuke to self-important would-be pols. No wonder Spitzer and his friends want to revise history.
The person mentioned above--the ALF's "spiritual leader," a.k.a. The Divine Bruce Yam--is my friend Keating Holland, now director of polling for CNN, who worked more than full-time as managing editor of The Daily Princetonian and still managed to graduate Phi Beta Kappa. Not a frat boy, and not what people picture when they hear the phrase. A former ALF candidate's current job description starts this way: "I am primarily interested in theories of strongly correlated quantum systems, particularly in low dimensions where quantum fluctuations can lead to interesting and exotic new states of matter." (Dan Arovas has "tenure in paradise," as Keating puts it, as a physics prof at UC-San Diego.)
Sorry, Eliot. I'm sure the New Yorker audience thinks it's just terrible the way the big, bad frat boys mocked your noble sense of public service. The truth--that a bunch of hyperintellectuals with a sense of humor incited a student revolt against Spitzer-style self-importance--is a lot more embarrassing.
How about that famous New Yorker fact checking!