Alito's ugly association

His membership in a racist, reactionary group at Princeton reveals the unsavory face of conservatism.

Published January 13, 2006 7:00PM (EST)

It's easy to tell when conservatives feel most embarrassed by a particular political revelation because indignation immediately swells while memory grows dim. Whatever the outcome of Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination, his membership in the Concerned Alumni of Princeton is the kind of issue that conservatives clearly prefer to avoid.

They don't like to be reminded of their historical opposition to civil rights, their continuing hostility to the advancement of minorities, or their bad habit of coddling and cultivating bigots.

That is why Sen. Orrin Hatch angrily demanded to know why anyone would dare ask Alito about CAP, why Sen. Lindsay Graham theatrically apologized to Alito and his family about the controversy, and why author Dinesh D'Souza, who once edited the organization's magazine, dismissed the subject as a "diversion." That is why Fox News and the conservative media are exploiting his wife's tears to suggest that those questions were somehow illegitimate.

That is also why Alito himself has claimed to be unable to recall his decision to join the reactionary group of wealthy Princeton graduates (founded in 1972), which became notorious for its opposition to women and minorities on campus, its vicious bigotry against homosexuals, and its defense of the interests of affluent white male alumni and their sons. A convenient credential back when he was applying for a post in the Reagan administration, where his résumé would be perused only by like-minded right-wingers, membership in CAP became troublesome under the hot lights of a Supreme Court nomination hearing.

Perhaps under coaching from the White House, Alito came up with a canned, flag-waving justification for joining such a group: to defend the right of the Reserve Officers Training Corps to remain on campus -- an explanation that emphasizes patriotism and duty rather than prejudice and privilege.

The blustering response from the right and the strange amnesia suffered by the nominee only emphasize how much they have to hide when such topics emerge -- and why they have so frantically sought to divert attention from this controversy. Things that happened long ago are fair game when raised about Bill Clinton or John Kerry, but out of bounds when the subject is a Republican nominee to a lifetime post on the nation's highest court.

Although CAP has been defunct for two decades, its sudden exhumation now exposes the unattractive underside of modern conservatism. To describe CAP merely as an organization that "opposed affirmative action," as the New York Times peculiarly insists in its news stories, is to whitewash its ugly reality.

The founder and chief financial supporter of CAP was an immensely wealthy investment banker named Shelby Cullom Davis, who served as ambassador to Switzerland under President Nixon and, aside from his enormous generosity to his alma mater, spent his fortune promoting right-wing causes and institutions. Davis made no secret of his opinion that diversity at Princeton, including the admission of women, was identical with decline. In "The Chosen," a recent history of admission policies at Harvard, Yale and Princeton by Jerome Karabel, Davis is quoted trumpeting his nostalgia for the homogeneity of his father's college class -- meaning an era when the Ivy League admitted no women, virtually no blacks or Hispanics and precious few Jews.

Demanding a reduction in the number of women and minorities permitted to enroll, Davis opposed sex-blind admissions as well as affirmative action (except for the children of alumni, of course). "Why should not a goal of 10 percent to 20 percent women and minorities be appropriate for Princeton's long-term strength and future?" he wondered.

With lavish subsidies from Davis, who also spent millions to help found the Heritage Foundation around the same time, CAP published a magazine called Prospect, which expressed the same sentiments, though sometimes in far coarser terms. Among the editors of Prospect was D'Souza, a Dartmouth graduate who has endorsed the repeal of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and has argued that what Americans regard as racism is only common-sense discrimination.

Conservatives like Davis and D'Souza certainly opposed affirmative action (except when applied to alumni spuds and star athletes), but the attitudes toward minorities, women and homosexuals expressed by CAP were hostile and extremist. That was why Bill Frist, a Princeton alumnus and no liberal even then, denounced CAP, as did Bill Bradley, who had briefly joined the group but resigned as soon as its real agenda became obvious.

For Princeton alumni, in other words, CAP became a clear symbol of certain attitudes toward women, minorities and homosexuals that were broadly unacceptable in civil discourse. To alumni of Alito's generation, his claim not to remember much about the furious debate over CAP is simply implausible. Everyone who was there remembers which side he or she was on.

In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Alito said that while he didn't remember much about CAP, he thought he would have joined only because of his anger about the banishment of ROTC from the Princeton campus. (He had joined ROTC after getting a low number in the Vietnam draft lottery.) That answer undermined his credibility, not only because of his implausible assertion that he doesn't remember the racist, sexist and gay-bashing rhetoric but because by the time he graduated, ROTC was no longer an issue at Princeton.

Young Sam Alito joined the ROTC in 1970, the same year that Princeton trustees voted to end undergraduate military training at the university for a variety of reasons. By the time he graduated two years later, however, the trustees had reinstated Army ROTC programs on campus. (The university's negotiations with the Air Force and Navy broke down, and their ROTC programs did not return to Princeton at that point.)

According to the Daily Princetonian, the trustees acted in recognition of broad support for bringing back a reformed ROTC program from students and trustees, including many who opposed the Vietnam War but viewed ROTC as "a beneficial and liberalizing influence upon the military."

In fact, ROTC was reinstated at Princeton by a vote of the trustees in June 1972 -- four months before the existence of CAP was announced in the Princeton Alumni Weekly the following October, according to "The Chosen."

So when Alito became an alumnus, his motivation to join CAP probably had little to do with his worries about the ROTC, because they had largely been resolved. That issue was never a primary focus of CAP's energies, and by the time Alito mentioned CAP on his résumé in 1985, the ROTC fight had been long forgotten -- but the bitter debate over diversity on campus was still raging.

The testimony of those who know Alito indicates that he is personally free of the racism and sexism espoused by the CAP crowd, and the archives show that he played no active role in the group. But his eagerness to identify with the likes of Davis and D'Souza is unsettling to say the least, especially in a jurist who has proved so unsympathetic to the rights of women, minorities, workers and consumers. Questioning him about CAP certainly was not "guilt by association," as his defenders have whined. He associated himself with those bigots -- and he still hasn't offered a plausible explanation.

This story has been changed since it was first published.

By Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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