Answering the Call: Yale’s Tradition of Public Service Tested Under Trump
In November 1960, David Gergen ’63, then a sophomore, stood on the New Haven Green to hear John F. Kennedy. In the last stretch of his presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, the senator had stopped for a rally in Connecticut. “[His speech] was fundamentally a call to service,” Gergen, now a Harvard professor and political commentator, recalled in an interview with The Politic.
“This has to be a time for action for us,” Kennedy told the crowd. “This is a contest between the comfortable and the concerned, and in my judgment, on Tuesday, the people of the United States are going to give us an opportunity to pick this country up and move it forward.” Two days later, Kennedy was elected president.
More than fifty years after that speech, on Class Day in 2014, former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 addressed graduating seniors one street away from where Kennedy had stood. “Your education requires something more of you than serving yourself. It calls on you to give back, in whatever way you can. It requires you to serve the world around you and, yes, to make a difference.”
“The core theme is that people with great privilege—it’s the Spiderman theme—with great privilege and power comes great responsibility,” said Harold Koh, Sterling Professor of International Law and former Dean of Yale Law School, who served as the State Department’s legal adviser under Hillary Clinton, in an interview with The Politic.
But for some Yale students, the call to serve under the new administration might be unappealing. Before the election, there was scarce support on campus for Donald Trump. An October Yale Daily News survey found that 80.6 percent of students backed Clinton, while only 4.73 percent supported Trump.
That most students at Yale voted for a Democratic candidate is no surprise. There were similar levels of support for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 versions of that survey—81 and 80 percent. But even for a Republican candidate, Trump was unusually unpopular on campus: 12 percent of Yale students committed to vote for John McCain, and 15 percent for Mitt Romney. Last year, after the Yale College Republicans endorsed Trump, several board members resigned and founded the “New College Republicans,” an anti-Trump conservative group.
Now, students interested in government but opposed to President Trump have to rethink their next steps.
“If you love the government that’s in power, then it’s a simple decision to say, ‘I will serve in the public interest by working in the government,” Koh said. “But when the government is somebody you didn’t vote for and you still want to serve the public interest, you have to think about other ways to do that.”
From George H.W. Bush ’48 to Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 to Samantha Power ’92, Yale has a long tradition of public service. It is passed down through generations when freshmen sing Yale’s fight song, “Bright College Years,” and make the pledge: “For God, For Country, and For Yale.” Students have no shortage of inspiration: Gergen noted that for a 32 year streak—in every national election from 1972 to 2004—either a presidential or vice presidential candidate had a Yale degree.
“Within a few hundred feet of my office at the White House, there were probably somewhere between five and ten Yalies,” R. David Edelman ’07, who most recently worked as an adviser for technology and economic policy at the White House, told The Politic.
What is it about Yale that encourages public service?
“In my view, Yale is one of those rare places where you can take incredibly bright, principled people who care deeply about ideas and help them think hard about turning those ideas into action,” Jake Sullivan ’98 LAW ’03, senior policy advisor on the 2016 Clinton presidential campaign said in an interview with The Politic.
Sullivan, who also teaches a class at the law school, is one of many alumni in government who have returned to Yale, as professors or guest speakers, to encourage students to continue the school’s tradition of public service.
“It’s great having access to people who are actually doing things who can tell you what it’s like,” Sarah Siegel ’19 told The Politic. Hearing Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo LAW ’98 speak on campus prompted Siegel to apply for a Yale Women in Government fellowship and spend the summer in Providence working for her.
“She told us we have an obligation to give back,” Siegel said.
David Thorne ’66, former Ambassador to Italy, points to two reasons for his interest in public service: first, he lived in Europe after World War II because his father was a diplomat; and second, his closest friend at Yale, also the son of a diplomat, was John Kerry. After graduating in 1966, Thorne and Kerry both enlisted in the Navy.
Thorne described a mythology surrounding “Yalie men of action” that existed during the Vietnam War.
“There was a sense in our generation at that time of serving our country in the military. This was our war, and we were going to fight it,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
The same spirit of service is memorialized on Yale’s campus. Jon Finer LAW ’09, former State Department Chief of Staff, told The Politic, “When you’re there, you see history all around you because it’s preserved in the buildings and portraits on the walls.”
Jay Carney ’87, White House Press Secretary under Obama, developed an interest in local politics in New Haven, including a union strike. “It was very interesting in terms of getting engaged in on the ground politics and issues that affect people directly instead of just political theory or grand strategy,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
For Eddie Fishman ’11, a career diplomat who served on the State Department’s policy planning staff under Kerry, it was Yale’s history department that sparked an interest in government. Fishman credits the department with encouraging previous generations of public servants, too, under some of the same mentors like professors John Gaddis, Don Kagan, and Paul Kennedy.
“I think there’s this notion of the scholar-statesman—folks who loved reading history and understanding how great leaders and diplomats made decisions in the past, and then trying to apply those lessons to the real world,” he told The Politic.
But in the Trump era, is Yale preparing students for government jobs they no longer want?
“The next four years are not going to be easy to navigate in the public sector,” Thorne said. Nevertheless, Thorne and every other alum who spoke with The Politic stressed the important work that the federal government does—no matter who is president.
Part of the distinction is between political appointees and Foreign Service officers or civil servants who stay in government through several administrations under different political parties. The 4,000 political appointees in government at any one time are outnumbered by 2.79 million civil servants and 13,000 Foreign Service officers.
“I don’t think you should automatically reject working in a Trump administration in a civil service kind of role because you don’t agree with its policies,” Nate Loewentheil ’07 LAW ’13, who worked on the National Economic Council under President Obama, told The Politic. “I think you should be more nuanced and attentive to the specifics.”
“Even if you are not serving a political role, you can—just through sheer competence and energy and passion for the work—make an impact,” Katharine Gallogly ’12, who most recently worked on education issues on the White House Domestic Council, echoed in an interview with The Politic.
While students might want to stay away from Washington, they might also be able to restrain policies that they oppose if they are in government.
“Let’s remember that bureaucracies play a big role in controlling information flows and determining the decisions that political people actually make,” Sam Breidbart ’11 LAW ’19 said in an interview with The Politic. “And so working in a bureaucracy and in a civil service position is still a very important thing—but you can kind of work with a resignation letter in the top drawer of your desk.”
Already, the Trump administration has seen protest from within the federal government. In response to an executive order on immigration, over 1,000 State Department employees signed a letter of dissent. After Trump disputed claims that his inauguration crowd size was significantly smaller than Obama’s, a rogue National Park Service employee tweeted comparison photos of the 2009 and 2017 inaugurations. Others tweeted facts about climate change, which Trump denied during the campaign.
Katharine Kendrick ’09, a graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, made a distinction between policy disagreements and moral misgivings. One possibility, she said, is “working within government and realizing that at some point you may need to work on policies you disagree with—and that has been a question for bureaucrats under every administration.” In his first government job, Koh, who is a Democrat, clerked for a Republican judge. He later worked in the Justice Department under the Reagan administration.
“That’s different from working on something where you feel you’re being asked to do something that’s unethical or unprincipled,” Kendrick continued. When, as Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates refused to enforce the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration, she lost her job.
“I think people have started to raise questions of what are the red lines in government that would if crossed would deter an individual from going into government service,” Alexandra Francis LAW ’18 agreed in an interview with The Politic. “And those are certainly conversations I’ve also had with myself,” she said. Francis has decided to accept a government internship this summer.
Some work the government does is distanced from the president’s policies, but other departments change drastically depending on the administration. That is the case, for example, of the place Christina Ford LAW ’18, co-president of the Yale Law School Democrats, dreams of working: the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. While she might consider working in another part of the federal government, Ford told The Politic, “I would not go into a Civil Rights Division in the current administration. I wouldn’t feel comfortable working for Jeff Sessions.”
But Eva Albalghiti ’17, an Environmental Engineering major, would still like to intern at the Environmental Protection Agency this summer before going to graduate school.
“A summer internship would be a really great way for me to start to understand a little bit more about how this administration works,” she told The Politic.
Emil Friedman ’20, who has interned for Senator Chuck Schumer, is definitely not going to work in a Trump White House, though he has given some thought to an internship in the Department of Education.
“But that’s going to take a lot of deep thinking about whether that’s a group of people I want to be involved with,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
“I understand those concerns, and I think they’re justified in some ways,” Fishman said. “The thing I’d say, though, is that public service is about serving the United States of America first and foremost—it’s not about any specific person or political figure, it’s about the good of the country.”
Carney emphasized the value of making change from within the government.
“The system is where lives can be changed or stopped and regulations can be rewritten and ultimately governance can change,” he said in an interview with The Politic.
Trump has had some tension with federal agencies. One of his first actions as president was implementing a hiring freeze to reduce the number of federal workers in an effort to cut expenses. The president has also criticized the intelligence community, mostly made up of civil servants.
On top of that, Lily Sawyer-Kaplan ’17, a White House intern during the Obama administration, remarked in an interview with The Politic, “Given the fact that the administration is a mess at the highest level, I can’t imagine they have a particularly well-organized internship program.”
Students uninterested in the federal government might consider returning home to work at the state or local level. “I would argue that the rebuilding of local communities is the best way to respond to the kind of crisis we see at the federal level,” Gergen said.
Dasia Moore ’18, a native of North Carolina, feels a pull back to the South.
“Before the election, I had thought returning South was something that could wait until after I had attended law school and lived in ‘exciting places’ like D.C. and New York as a young adult,” she wrote in an email to The Politic. Now Moore still plans to go to law school but feels an urgency to travel home.
Breidbart, who previously worked in the New York Mayor’s office, is happy that more Yale students are planning to work in local and state government. On the other hand, he said, “It’s also a frightening thing. You don’t want to have a brain drain from the civil service in Washington.”
Other Yale alumni interested in politics turn to journalism.
Michelle Hackman ’15 is a reporter at the The Wall Street Journal who wrote for the Yale Daily News. Hackman told The Politic she used to think to herself, “This is one of the biggest service-minded schools in the country, and I’m spending all this time doing this self-serving thing of building up my journalism career by working at the YDN.” But over time, she said, “it slowly dawned on me that what I was doing was public service.” As a city reporter, Hackman attended New Haven town halls, visited state legislators, and wrote about state laws. Now she specializes in health care policy.
Some students have held off on deciding their career plans.
“I have to have a longer time horizon to work for the federal government now,” Ford said. She hopes that after finishing law school and her clerkship, the government will be different.
Sawyer-Kaplan had hoped to return to Washington to work in the Clinton administration after graduation.
“Obviously, my dream would have been to work in the Clinton administration or do something central to their priorities, likely women and family issues,” she said.
Instead, she has decided to go straight to law school. “The election just clarified for me that we need a lot of people who have the tools to work on social justice issues. And we need good lawyers especially.”
“If there’s a silver lining in this period, it’s that people are being forced to broaden their vision of public service,” Koh said.
Recent alumni have charted public service paths outside of government. Jason Green LAW ’08 started a production company that sponsors community-based documentary films, and a technology company that matches individuals to jobs and training based on their skills. Kendrick advises travel company Airbnb on China policy. Gallogly is going to do a fellowship in New York City to encourage civics education.
When he graduated from law school in 2003, Sullivan remembers declining interest among law students in working under George W. Bush. At that time, his classmates had to find other ways to get involved.
“But that’s the thing about students at Yale,” he said, “they’re creative and they find those outlets and I’m confident the same thing will happen now under Trump.”
On November 4th, 2008, hundreds of students flooded onto Old Campus chanting, “Yes, we did.” Some of them started singing the national anthem.
“It was a real civic celebration,” Breidbart said. He had traveled with a big group to New Hampshire with the Yale College Democrats to campaign for then-Senator Obama. Finer, who graduated in 2009, felt public service was “very much in the bloodstream while I was there.” Gallogly had worked on the campaign before arriving to campus as a freshman, so “that night felt very personal.” Green spent most of his third year of law school as the National Voter Registration Director for the campaign. “That election was an activation for young people,” he said.
There may have also been something about Obama’s message that appealed to Yale students in particular. “More than just the fact that [Obama] preached a kind of civic mindedness that is attractive to young people, there was also an appreciation of expertise and being somebody who can command a policy area and can evaluate big data—these were the ideas of the moment,” Breidbart said.
Now, he continued, “Beyond the politics having changed, there’s just less demand for that kind of expertise.”
Sawyer-Kaplan worries that Trump’s message will make the White House less inclusive than it was under Obama. “My internship office was an incredible swath of young Americans, and I think that this administration has made it very clear that it only sees a certain type of American as valued or worthy of this administration’s attention,” she said.
But some Yale students hope to work in a Trump administration. Karl Notturno ’17 is Yale’s most vocal Trump supporter. For months, he has publicly defended Trump online and has offered to meet with students to discuss his views. He told The Politic he finds Trump inspiring, mostly because he feels the country is on the brink of a “golden age of business.” Notturno said that he and his friends who supported Trump have applied to work in the administration.
Notturno is not sure he will get a job, or how useful he would be if he does. “I’m not sure there’s anything I can substantively do for them that they would need me for, and I don’t expect to be rewarded for my support,” he said. “If there’s something I can do, or those other people can do, we’ll go for it.”
Notturno pointed to the overwhelming support for Clinton among Yale students: “That isn’t particularly reflective of the rest of the country.” Though the national electorate was much more evenly split than the Yale student body, Clinton did carry a convincing majority of young votes—55 percent to Trump’s 37 percent.
With so many Yale alumni working in government and journalism, Notturno believes that many people in Washington have a shared perspective. “When I listen to people talk here about certain policies, there’s a very mainstream line in Yale, I see also played out in what you would consider the mainstream media—CNN, things like that. I hear the same things echoed,” he said. “And it makes sense to me because a lot of the career politicians, a lot of the establishment politicians, a lot of the media personalities they’re referencing, all these people have come from Yale.”
Still, the Trump administration is not without Yale alumni. Three members of Trump’s cabinet have degrees from Yale: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin ’85, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson ’73, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross ’59. Stephen Schwarzman ’69, who made a 150 million dollar donation to renovate Commons, now renamed the Schwarzman Center, is one of Trump’s economic policy advisers.
“I’m not a fan of the notion that our government leaders shouldn’t come from our great national institutions,” Koh said.
“The fact of the matter is that Yale itself, the undergraduate population, draws from all over the world, and many people who are coming here are the first person from their family to leave home,” he continued.
Loewentheil believes the most important qualities in a public servant are not educational background but competence and passion. “I think you could come from Yale and be an excellent civil servant and you could be from any other school in the country and be a terrible public servant. Or vice versa,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone here has political ambitions because they’re some sort of evil, maniacal person,” Notturno said. “They all want to do good, almost like a savior complex. But they also think that they just know vastly more than everyone else in the world.”
“The irony is that Donald Trump may do something that Hillary Clinton couldn’t do, that Bernie Sanders couldn’t do, and not even Barack Obama could do, and that is to create a progressive movement that inspires your generation,” Gergen said.
Sullivan has found a new energy among his students that didn’t exist several years ago. “What’s interesting is that while students are less certain about how they want to make a difference, they’re actually more passionate about making a difference than they were before the election.”
The first question students ask him is how they can be useful while Trump is president. “I preach the gospel of running for office to anyone who will listen,” Sullivan said. He believes a major problem is that good people are deterred from seeking public office. To address that problem, Yale Law Women recently started a campaign to send postcards to women at the law school asking them to run for office.
Since the election, students have mobilized: the Yale College Democrats are writing testimony to support progressive bills in the Connecticut legislature; Dwight Hall, Yale’s umbrella community service organization, has started “Fired Up Friday” advocacy sessions; law students are leading the charge to allow refugees to enter the country.
“I’m constantly amazed by, over the years as a teacher here, how students leave Yale and they think it’s expected of them to make a quick and important impact,” Koh reflected.
For many Yale students, the call to serve has changed. No longer a message of hope and change, it is one of duty and urgency.
“I think that Trump definitely solidified exactly—whether I like it or not—I have a responsibility in terms of my job after graduating,” Daniel Vernick ’19, who last year won a seat on his local town hall in Massachusetts, told The Politic. “I definitely want to work on the Elizabeth Warren 2020 campaign—and that is decided.”
Sitting on Old Campus, seniors in the class of 2014 heard a message from John Kerry familiar to Yale students: “The four years you have spent here are an introduction to responsibility.” Despite the changing circumstances, that same spirit has remained from his time at Yale to today.
As the Trump administration begins, students are reevaluating how best to fulfill that responsibility. About a year away from her own graduation from Yale, Moore said, “I’m thinking differently about how to use my education for the most good as the challenges ‘good’ is up against keep changing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated that David Thorne ’66 and John Kerry ’66 served in the Army. In fact, it was the Navy.