The Education of Josh Hawley

Josh Hawley grew up in Lexington, Missouri, roughly an hour outside Kansas City, with a father who was a banker and a mother who was a teacher—and herself a Stanford graduate. He arrived at the university’s idyllic campus in the heart of Silicon Valley in the fall of 1998. It was the height of the first dot-com bubble. Computer science graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin had just signed the paperwork to incorporate their search engine, BackRub, under the new name Google, Inc. It seemed nearly everyone on campus had visions of dropping out of college and becoming the next Jerry Yang, the Stanford alum who founded Yahoo, which had recently been dubbed an internet “kingmaker.”

In Washington, President Bill Clinton’s impeachment was just getting underway, but on the Palo Alto campus, aside from the spectacle of Secret Service officers trailing first daughter Chelsea, then a sophomore, or the U.S. marshals camped out behind the freshman dorm of Ken Starr’s daughter, Carolyn, the collective undergraduate population couldn’t have cared less. While students generally embraced a socially liberal ethos, few were actively engaged in politics.

In that sense, Hawley stood out early on. As a prep school student before college, he had already written several political columns for his hometown newspaper, and at Stanford, he joined the Stanford Review, the right-wing student publication founded more than a decade earlier by Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel. There are few indications Hawley was particularly interested in or concerned about the burgeoning Big Tech scene, as he is today. But, unlike the vast majority of his peers at the time, he was clearly a conservative and inclined toward politics.

“He was very certain of his political ideology, even at that age, even at 18,” says Brooke Eisele, who also wrote for the Review and was a close friend of Hawley’s from the time they both lived in the same freshman dorm. “I think a lot of us came in with our predispositions and kind of felt things out and shaped ourselves there. He came in with a rock-solid view of the world.”

According to numerous classmates, Hawley nonetheless was friendly with liberals, and his worldview, while uncommon within the student body, was not outside the mainstream. Eisele, who until recently worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the Republican majority but has lost touch with Hawley, describes him as having been “a classic conservative in every sense of the word.” Brad Gregory, another former history professor of Hawley’s who now teaches at Notre Dame, says of Hawley’s beliefs: “It was entirely an intellectually responsible, sort of traditional, Burkean conservatism—the importance of tradition, the importance of established institutions, limited government, individual responsibility and freedom.”

His sophomore year, Hawley told the student newspaper he believed there was a “continual decline at Stanford of any political activism.” But to the extent that he himself was an activist, it was over relatively mundane causes such as the debate, seemingly perpetual at Stanford, over what the university’s core humanities curriculum should entail. Hawley, with his friend Rachel Scarlett-Trotter, formed a student group called Freedom Forum that advocated for the inclusion of more texts that force students to “examine the ideas and thinkers that have shaped western civilization.” (Scarlett-Trotter declined to comment for this story.)

Hawley’s other writings for the Review, fellow members of the student publication say, were far from incendiary, as the publication often can be. In one piece, Hawley took on affirmative action, but only to say that students of color ought to be given more tools to succeed long before they go to college.

“He wasn’t like one of these people like Stephen Miller, who was excoriating liberals and fueling culture wars on campus, at least not that I was aware of,” says a classmate who knew Hawley but spoke only on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of being targeted violently by supporters of the senator. Emeritus Professor Jack Rakove, another teacher and mentor to Hawley, similarly distinguished Hawley from his last advisee, incoming Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice’s Trump-supporting son, who graduated from Stanford last year. On campus, John Rice-Cameron “adopted this kind of provocative conservative character, sometimes even offensive, like, ‘Let’s own the libs,’ or whatever,” Rakove says. “Josh wasn’t like that. He was not like that at all.”

Still, some classmates say, there were hints of Hawley’s current brand of politics, which has a populist tinge but appears to be anchored by a Christian nationalist viewpoint. Several of them remember him as someone who took his evangelical faith seriously enough to shape his civic worldview. Colin Mathewson, who did Bible study with Hawley when they lived in the same freshman dorm and was his roommate one summer in D.C., when Hawley interned at The Heritage Foundation, says Hawley’s politics seemed to come “from a religious source and had a religious kind of purpose to it. In my experience with Josh, the politics were secondary to what the sort of religious truth was.”

Another classmate recalls Hawley, who today loudly decries America’s increasing ungodliness, talking about a “communitarian brand of social conservatism,” in contrast with the libertarianism most other campus conservatives espoused.

Thinking back to Hawley’s senior year, Rakove, the history professor, remembers a departmental commencement address Hawley gave that reflected “the view that there was a kind of moral consistency to conservative thinking that might be absent from other points along the ideological spectrum.” Rakove has long forgotten the exact content of the speech, he says, but the theme and tone were more memorable.

Hawley wrote his honors thesis about the political philosophies of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Kennedy, who advised him on the work, says he can see early indications of Hawley’s present-day ideology there: Hawley rejected Roosevelt’s more statist impulses, according to Kennedy, but was “tempted” by the Rooseveltian view that “the role of government is to foster communitarian thinking and sentiment.” In the 2008 book Hawley published based on his thesis (subtitled “Preacher of Righteousness” and with a laudatory foreword by Kennedy), Hawley wrote approvingly of Roosevelt’s view of politics as a “profoundly moral enterprise.” More recently, the senator has gone on to emulate the 26th president in his emergence as a conservative-populist trustbuster, while even more fervently than Roosevelt incorporating anti-secularism into his communitarian politics.

Other classmates, however, say that while Hawley was ardently against abortion, his faith during college seemed less an obvious motivation for his political aspirations and more a guide for his social interactions. Friends of Hawley’s told POLITICO they didn’t ever see Hawley drink, smoke or “bring a girl back” to his dorm room. By many accounts, he preferred to stay in and study on weekend nights than to go out and party.

“I didn’t even realize until last week that the Josh Hawley in the news was the Josh Hawley that lived in Donner,” says Scott Finkelstein, one of the resident assistants in Hawley’s freshman dorm. “I mean, he was pretty quiet as far as I remember.”

‘He had his eyes on the prize’

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