NEW YORK ― Arguments for boycotting the Soviet Union and funding the Star Wars missile defense program, screeds against the Sandinista constitution ― these are among the late ‘80s conservative talking points featured in The Federalist Paper, the campus publication that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch co-founded and edited as a Columbia University undergraduate.
Gorsuch’s paper now seems like a relic of a Republican Party that no longer exists ― the party of politicians like Ronald Reagan and commentators like George Will and William F. Buckley Jr. The telecom ads featuring Charlton Heston extolling the wonders of satellites don’t help that time-warp impression.
Listen to the paper’s former writers talk, and it’s easy to imagine that in another universe, Gorsuch would have been a Never Trumper. Instead, the president poised to kill off the Republican Party that Gorsuch grew up in has chosen him for the Supreme Court.
The Federalist Paper, which Gorsuch co-founded in 1986, was meant to counter the overwhelming predominance of liberal views on Columbia’s campus. The paper was certainly conservative, but it was also accepting of students who saw themselves as centrists or even simply Reagan fans with no real attachment to the GOP or the conservative movement. Its former writers and editors describe the paper using many of the same adjectives they apply to Gorsuch himself: thoughtful, intellectual, mature, fair, open, personable.
“He’s not a Breitbart type. He’s not a Rush Limbaugh type,” a former writer, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal in his current job, told The Huffington Post. “I think Neil would view those guys as uncouth.”
The paper was legitimately committed to debate, former writers say. “We didn’t want it to be an alternative voice; we wanted it to be a bunch of alternative voices,” co-founder Andy Levy said on Fox News’ late-night show “Red Eye,” where he is now a co-host. (A Fox News representative declined HuffPost’s request to speak with Levy.)
“I thought of it as a paper that was having a conversation about issues in a way that the [Columbia] Spectator didn’t,” said Eric Prager, a former Federalist writer who is now a partner at the law firm K&L Gates and an adjunct professor at Fordham Law School. Prager said he thought of the Federalist as centrist, even if there were plenty of conservative pieces in it.
For instance, the cover story for the inaugural October 1986 issue, which Levy and third co-founder P.T. Waters wrote, argued that student activists calling for full divestment and boycott of apartheid South Africa were hypocritical because they weren’t also calling for similar policies against communist countries like the Soviet Union. The same issue argued in favor of U.S. military recruitment on campus and discrimination against gays (the latter military policy would remain in effect until 2011).
A short, unbylined February 1987 piece criticized Nicaragua’s Sandinista government for including rights to food, housing and education in its constitution. The item argued that those rights “are not, and cannot be, ‘individual rights’” because individual rights “cannot extend to those things which are dependent on others for fulfillment”:
The only way to achieve those ends is through use of force ― have teachers teach at gunpoint, have farmers farm with knives to their throats, and have architects design by taking their families hostage.
The piece concluded that “it’s a good thing the US constitution is ‘vague’ about individual rights.”
Under Gorsuch, the paper featured dueling pro-and-con columns on political and campus issues, such as a measure that would have mandated co-ed fraternities. (Gorsuch wrote in opposition in that example.)
These pro-and-con pieces were particularly important to Gorsuch, who worked hard to ensure that both sides of the arguments were as strong as possible, said M. Adel Aslani-Far, who became a top editor after Gorsuch.
“That was something Neil drove very passionately,” said Aslani-Far, now a partner at the law firm Latham & Watkins. Gorsuch “was not into the idea that the person who prevails in the marketplace of ideas is the person who shouts the loudest or bangs the table,” he said.
The Federalist Society, a conservative lawyers’ group unrelated to Gorsuch’s paper, is notable for hosting similar left-right debates featuring prominent legal minds. Gorsuch, a Federalist Society member, is a big draw when he attends the group’s annual convention and has spoken at the gathering.
The Federalist Paper’s writing was, like its editor, polished and precociously proficient. Its admiration of National Review wasn’t just political – its tone similarly combined proto-snark with a lilting young-fogey style. “Stop writing like your 50 years old,” reads a note to the editor that the paper published and mocked for its spelling error in the Oct. 26, 1987, issue.
Gorsuch was aware that “having people debate Reagan versus not Reagan only went so far,” Aslani-Far said. The Federalist would also home in on campus issues, like the co-ed fraternities measure or the high on-campus fees for bounced checks, as it did in its January 1987 issue.
On the latter issue, the staff editorial hit at the administration for charging a $25 fee for returned checks when the maximum value that students could write a check for was $30. “Can’t the university provide an alternative to the 80% penalty on a bounced check?” the editors asked. The piece went on to rail against the $10 fee to replace lost student ID cards. It wasn’t just an issue of economics, the editors said, though both cases seemed like pure price-gouging. The fees were tangible annoyances that hindered students from developing a positive emotional bond with the university.
Along with political debates and campus controversies, The Federalist wrote about culture, such as a gushing review of a Polaroid collage exhibit from English artist David Hockney ― the kind of article aimed at that particular breed of college student who likes to discuss how the artist is pushing the boundaries of photorealism and cubism over dinner in the cafeteria.
The Federalist Paper is also notable in that it received funding from the Collegiate Network, which was part of an organization founded by former Treasury Secretary William Simon and conservative writer Irving Kristol. The network directed money from corporations and conservative groups, like the John M. Olin Foundation and the Scaife family foundations, to conservative college publications. Charlie Copeland, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which took over the Collegiate Network in the mid-1990s, confirmed the Federalist funding to HuffPost.
The Collegiate Network has a lot of prominent alumni to brag about. Its website lists New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, National Review editor Rich Lowry, commentators Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, Laura Ingraham and Fareed Zakaria, and billionaire investor Peter Thiel. Longtime conservative columnist R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., the founder and editor-in-chief of The American Spectator who went after the Clintons in the 1990s, advised Gorsuch and the Federalist, along with “several similar off-campus college publications,” Tyrrell told HuffPost. The Federalist was “among the most sophisticated” of the papers he advised, Tyrrell said.
Indeed, if the Trump administration had dug into the Federalist archives, the famously thin-skinned president, who has reportedly sunk at least one other nomination due to past criticism, might never have nominated Gorsuch.
A short item in the October 26, 1987, issue featured brief notes from readers and dry, unsigned responses from the staff.
“Trump should run for pres,” one reader wrote.
“With Zeckendorf as VP, perhaps?” the staff sarcastically replied, referring to William Zeckendorf, a famous New York real estate developer who went bankrupt in 1965 and by 1987 had been dead for over a decade.
Andy Campbell contributed reporting.