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Attacking Elizabeth Warren's Harvard ties likely to backfire in crimson-tinted Massachusetts

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  September 20, 2011 03:26 PM

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Scott Brown and the GOP can try to hang Harvard around Elizabeth Warren’s neck. But that affiliation alone is unlikely to sink her, should she win the Democratic nomination and take on Brown for the U.S. Senate.

If anyone polled Bay Staters about Harvard’s standing — and trust me, someone has, but has not yet released the results — the number of people who view it favorably would be the envy of most politicians.

Besides, this is Massachusetts, where the quest for Ivy League admission is a blood sport. Anxious parents hire SAT tutors and writing coaches to position their over-achieving darlings for a New Englander’s ultimate paradise: Harvard Yard. (Hell is the Boston College wait list.)

If Harvard is such a negative, why do so many people try to get into it? Last April 1, letters of admission were sent to 2,110 of 30,489 applicants. Of those admitted, more than 60 percent will receive need-based scholarships averaging $40,000. That means many of the accepted are not “elite” — they’re just smart.

That describes Warren, too. Yes, she’s a Harvard law professor. But she didn’t parachute into Cambridge via family connections or academic pedigree. She climbed a ladder anyone with a modest upbringing and no Harvard legacy ties could admire. The daughter of a janitor and store clerk, she attended the University of Houston and Rutgers University. Before she came to Harvard in 1995, she taught at the public flagship universities in Texas and Michigan.

Then, she entered a rarefied world that is not so rare for many modern-day Massachusetts politicians, from Deval Patrick and Michael Dukakis to Mitt Romney and William F. Weld.

The Boston Globe reports that only one professor in recent years other than Warren and Daniel Patrick Moynihan waged a congressional campaign while teaching at the school. Patrick taught at Harvard from 1966 and won his New York Senate seat in 1976. The third is H. Stuart Hughes, a history student at Harvard in the late 1930s, a junior professor through 1957 through 1973 — and a failed independent opponent of Edward M. Kennedy in the 1962 Senate race.

But Harvard was hardly Hughes’ biggest problem. John F. Kennedy — a Harvard man — was president when his little brother ran for JFK’s Senate seat in a 1962 special election. During a hard-fought primary battle against Edward M. McCormack, Ted Kennedy acknowledged he had been expelled from Harvard for cheating. (He was later readmitted.) McCormack tried to paint Kennedy as an elitist who would not be a serious contender if his name were “Edward Moore.” The voters thought otherwise.

McCormack — who was first in his class at Boston University School of Law — lost to Kennedy, 2 to 1, in the Democratic primary. Kennedy went on to beat Hughes, and Republican George Cabot Lodge II — another Harvard graduate.

Sometimes running against Harvard works. George H.W. Bush used the elitist label successfully against Dukakis in the 1988 campaign, but Dukakis also gave him plenty of help.

And even while trying to use Harvard against her, the Massachusetts Republicans are, somewhat weirdly, trying to disconnect Warren from the university.

In a letter to President Drew Gilpin Faust, MassGOP executive director Nate Little questions Warren’s status on the Harvard payroll as she runs for office. “As a non-profit charitable institution, Harvard is prohibited from taking a position on behalf or or in opposition to a candidate,” he writes. “Your payment of a salary to Professor Warren causes reasonable-minded people to conclude that Harvard is supportive of her candidacy."

Perhaps MassGOP already understands that while calling a rival a Harvard elitist is a pejorative on the national stage, it is less so in Massachusetts — a world filled with Harvard elitist wannabees.

Reuters/Adam Hunger: Elizabeth Warren speaks with voters after announcing her Senate candidacy last week.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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