Yale Men in the Cabinet

On Capitol Hill, three Yale alumni are preparing for new jobs. Pending confirmations by the Senate, Steven Mnuchin ’85, Ben Carson ’73, and Wilbur Ross ’59 will take their place in President Donald Trump’s cabinet in the coming weeks. Yale alums have long inhabited the upper echelons of the U.S. government, but Trump’s Ivy League picks run counter to his populist campaign and rejection of intellectual elitism. These two Wall Street bankers and the neurosurgeon were neither Yale Political Union firebrands like John Kerry nor the scions of political families like George W. Bush. They inhabited different spaces at Yale—from the Yale Daily News business team to senior-level psychology seminars to the Yale Literary Magazine—but none seemed to be preparing for a life of civic engagement. How did they spend their formative years at Yale before embarking on the non-political careers that still delivered them to the West Wing?

STEVE MNUCHIN 

“A Yale man,” the New York Times Magazine reported during George W. Bush’s presidency, “used to be somebody who looked the part.”

Donald Trump ran for the presidency on an anti-establishment platform that attacked the intellectual elite, big banks, and the corporate-political “swamp.” But in his first weeks in office, he stocked his cabinet with members of those same groups. Steven Mnuchin ’85 is Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Treasury, but he ticks all the boxes that would qualify him as an enemy of Trump supporters. He is, quite literally, a Yale man, who looks—and has always looked—the part.

Mnuchin started his career at Goldman Sachs, where his father was one of its top partners. Eventually, he moved to Hollywood, where he invested in films, launched OneWest Bank, and made a name for himself as a “foreclosure king.” CNN reported that OneWest became infamous for its “widow foreclosures,” the practice of booting elderly and vulnerable residents from their homes through onerous loans and technicalities, according to CNN.  In one instance, Mnuchin was said to have foreclosed on a home over an unpaid bill of twenty-seven cents.

He is, quite literally, a Yale man, who looks—and has always looked—the part.

Like other Trump cabinet nominees, Mnuchin has no government experience. His main qualification for Treasury Secretary seems to be that he’s dealt with money before. He is the chief executive of the hedge fund Dune Capital, which, the New York Times reports, was named for the dunes outside his vacation house in the Hamptons.

According to his classmates in Hopper College (then called Calhoun College) and other members of the Yale Daily News board, Mnuchin hasn’t changed much since his Yale days.  When asked whether they were surprised that Mnuchin was one of Trump’s cabinet picks, many gave the same answer.

A pause. Then, “No.”

After graduating from New York City’s Riverdale Country Day School in 1981, Mnuchin followed his father to Yale, where classmates recall he drove a Porsche and lived off-campus in the luxe Taft Hotel on the corner of College and Chapel streets.  Katherine Randolph ’85, a classmate in Hopper, recalls that he mostly hung out with other wealthy kids from New York private schools.  His two off-campus roommates, Eddie Lampert ’84 and Benjamin Bram ’84 both went into finance and worked with Mnuchin for some time at Goldman Sachs. (Reached by email in early January, Mnuchin said that he would speak with The New Journal after his confirmation. In the days after he was confirmed by the Senate, Mnuchin did not return requests for comment, nor did he respond to a list of emailed questions.)

Mnuchin’s main extracurricular was the Yale Daily News. He didn’t write, but instead headed the business side—an almost entirely separate part of the newspaper, according to his colleagues on the editorial board. Bennett Voyles ’85, who described himself as a “fellow Newsie,” remembers the publishing team as “a sleek crew in Lacoste shirts who would glide in and out of the News building.”

Bennett Voyles ’85, who described himself as a “fellow Newsie,” remembers the publishing team as “a sleek crew in Lacoste shirts who would glide in and out of the News building.”

As publisher during his junior year, Mnuchin was embroiled in conflict with the News’ editorial board. After his nomination for Secretary of the Treasury, Dan Froomkin ’85, a former News editor tweeted: “I knew Steve Mnuchin back when his idea of fun was starving the Yale Daily News of resources to pad his resume as publisher.” Froomkin vividly recalls arguments between Mnuchin and the editorial staff, in which Mnuchin insisted on fewer pages of content to leave a financial surplus. Anndee Hochman ’84, the editor-in-chief of the News in 1984, remembers a year of clashes as the editorial team pushed to maximize content and the publishing team tried to maximize profit. Voyles and Froomkin attempted a coup against Mnuchin, but Mnuchin and the News’ lawyer reportedly quashed it before it could get anywhere.

Mnuchin’s colleagues on the News largely found him difficult to work with—Hochman describes him as “self-confident to the point of arrogant, a smooth talker and a lousy listener.” Mark Danziger ’85 is quoted in Businessweek as saying he “put the douche in fiduciary.”

But not everybody felt negatively about Mnuchin. Hopper classmate Serena Williams ’85 says she remembers Mnuchin as “always nice and smiling.” And he was tapped for Yale’s most illustrious secret society, Skull and Bones. Mnuchin entered the society in his senior year, along with his roommate Eddie Lampert, whose hedge fund he later worked for, and James Boasberg, the federal judge who ruled this September that construction could proceed on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Mnuchin’s Senate confirmation was rocky; he failed to disclose one hundred million dollars in assets on the Senate Finance Committee documents, claiming that he had “misunderstood” the questionnaire. But by February 13—the Monday after he attended Steve Schwarzman’s seventieth birthday party in Palm Beach, where he and fellow guests Wilbur Ross, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner enjoyed acrobatic performances, two camels, and a rendition of “Happy Birthday” by Gwen Stefani, according to Bloomberg—the Senate voted 53-47 to confirm him. In December, he’d already updated his job title on the alumni database to “Secretary of the Treasury of the U.S.,” making things already Yale-official.

—Rachel Calnek-Sugin

 

BEN CARSON

“Do you believe that everybody should own a home?” Senator Dean Heller of Nevada asked Ben Carson ’73 at his Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in January.

“I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to own a home,” responded Carson, raising his eyebrows and pausing after “opportunity.” During the hearing, he spoke at length about encouraging individual responsibility. He recounted, as he frequently does, how he grew up in an impoverished Detroit neighborhood and rose to the top of his high school class before attending Yale.

Carson has taken a circuitous route into politics. A prominent neurosurgeon, he entered the political limelight with a controversial speech criticizing President Obama’s policies at the 2013 National Prayer Breakfast. Despite his lack of experience in politics or housing, he ran for president in 2016 and was recently selected by President Trump to lead HUD.

But Carson, who now advocates conservative “common sense” government and denounces political correctness, was not always so outspoken. At Yale, he was a reclusive, devout pre-med student; few of his classmates would have guessed that he was on the path to become such a recognizable and divisive political figure.

In an era of counter-culture and protest, he stood out for his close-cropped hair, pocket protector, and high-water pants.

Carson’s peers in Davenport College remember him as intensely focused on academics and not eager to develop friendships. In an era of counter-culture and protest, he stood out for his close-cropped hair, pocket protector, and high-water pants. According to his peers, he was an outlier. “No one knew him particularly well,” explained Ronald Taylor ’73, a classmate in Davenport. Early in their freshman year, Taylor sat down to a few meals with Carson, but he felt rebuffed. “After a couple early attempts to engage him, I spent the next four years smiling and saying ‘hi,’” Taylor said.

Dr. Edward Wassman ’73, a Davenport classmate who studied for chemistry and physics classes with Carson, remembered that Carson would sit near the front of lectures and often have conversations with peers or professors after class. Dr. Don Marshall ’73, a psychology major in Branford, also remembers Carson readily participating in his classes. “I had a distinct impression of him saying things that he thought were really brilliant, that other people didn’t think were very good,” he said.

According to Walter Miller ’73, Carson’s freshman-year roommate, Carson was disciplined and meticulously neat. He cleaved to a conservative sense of propriety; when Miller began sleeping with his girlfriend on the couch, he sensed Carson’s disapproval. By senior year, Miller recognized Carson as one of the “nicest guys I knew,” but added, “You probably wouldn’t want to hang out with him, because you probably wouldn’t have that much fun.”

Though he identified as a Democrat, Carson was reticent about politics as a student at Yale, a fact made more pronounced by the swirl of political activism that defined the campus in the early nineteen-seventies. During his freshman spring, tens of thousands of protesters flocked to New Haven for the high-profile trial of Bobby Seale, a founder of the Black Panther Party. Tensions continued as Yale adjusted to coeducation, beginning with Carson’s class, and Vietnam War protests swept across college campuses. Several of Carson’s classmates in Davenport, including former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke ’71 and Senator Sherrod Brown ’74, Democrat of Ohio, were influential activists remembered for leading the student body through the protests.

Henry Chauncey ’57, a former Secretary of the University who ran crisis management during the Bobby Seale trial, was surprised to learn that Carson was at Yale during the period. “I thought I knew every black student at Yale,” he said, referencing the heavy involvement of African American students in the protests. Carson avoided participation. He was “a bit dismayed by the disruption of academics,” according to Wassman.

Carson, speaking to The New Journal, acknowledged that he “really didn’t engage in a lot of political conversation.”

Carson, speaking to The New Journal, acknowledged that he “really didn’t engage in a lot of political conversation.” Unlike Chauncey, he recalls a student body in which most people were frustrated by the turmoil. “I think everybody was a little bit dismayed during the Bobby Seale trial,” he said about the academic disruptions, “so I don’t think that would be anything out of the ordinary.”

Carson expressed his beliefs more vocally in his church community, away from campus politics. Lola Nathan, who attended services with Carson at the Mt. Zion Seventh-day Adventist Church in Hamden, had him over for dinner regularly during his undergraduate years. Over their meals, she would argue with him about everything from politics to current events. Interviewed at Mt. Zion in January, she tersely remarked that she disagrees with him just as much now as she did then.

On Carson’s prospects at HUD, his former friends and classmates are split along ideological lines. Some are hopeful about his foray into U.S. government. Terence Diggory ’73, a Davenport classmate who had a friendly relationship with Carson, said, “He has demonstrated that he is smart, and I’m sure right now he is doing a lot of homework.”

But many others are dismayed. Walter Miller seemed disappointed about Carson’s rise to conservative stardom. “He would be the last guy that you would think would be a politician.”

—Chris Hays

 

WILBUR ROSS                           

Wilbur Ross ’59 has been dubbed the “king of bankruptcy” by Fortune magazine. Over the past fifteen years, he has made billions of dollars by capitalizing on failing American steel, coal, and textile companies. He made his way into President Trump’s inner circle in the nineteen-nineties by rescuing him from the Trump Taj Mahal debacle, when Trump struggled to make debt payments for the Taj Mahal casino just a year after purchasing it. Today, he’s the nominee for the United States Secretary of Commerce.

Sixty years ago, though, he was “Wilbo.” In the era of mandatory coat and tie, he moseyed about the Jonathan Edwards College courtyard in a baggy crewneck sweater. According to Kerry Wood ’59 who lived upstairs from him for three years, Ross gained the nickname “Stinky” because of his heavy aftershave. “If he had too much cologne, it was because he wasn’t showering adequately,” said Dan Harris ’59, another member of Ross’s JE class. “Wilbur, to be generous, at the time was a slob,” he added. “A nice guy, but a slob.” In an interview with The New Journal, Ross claimed that the nickname “Stinky” belonged not to him but rather his freshman year roommate.

According to Kerry Wood ’59 who lived upstairs from him for three years, Ross gained the nickname “Stinky” because of his heavy aftershave.

In the late nineteen-fifties, Yale’s culture pressured students to obey a conservative prep school style of dress. Fred Oser ’58 describes the campus in a single sentence: “I was completely overwhelmed by the atmosphere of conformity.” Oser remembers walking back from a Sunday church service in Battell Chapel dressed in his best blue suit and blue suede shoes, mortified that his clothes didn’t fit in. The very next day, he bought a tweed jacket from J. Press.

Amidst a traditional, homogenous culture, Ross defied categorization. He was a legacy prep school kid on scholarship; a member of the Air Force ROTC and an English major; a frat boy who made the Dean’s List.

His fraternity, Chi Phi, attracted atypical members. Chi Phi was far less exclusive than Fence Club, Delta Kappa Epsilon, or any of the other houses where “you just had to be someone,” according to Oser. It had fewer prep school boys but more high-achieving students than other fraternities. But by the time Ross graduated, Chi Phi’s numbers were dwindling, and the fraternity permanently dissolved in 1961.

Ross was part of the Yale literary scene, working on two starkly different publications. He was a member of the Yale Literary Magazine, which, at the time, the Yale Daily News described as dying, debt-ridden, and full of mediocre writers. Ross also contributed to Ivy Magazine, a student-run, inter-school magazine that catered to the posh elite of the Ivy League.

At a time when post-college options seemed limited to banking, insurance, and brokerage, Ross yearned to be a writer. “People who were literarily inclined weren’t looked down on, they were just thought to be a little bit odd,” said Chauncey, though he did not know Ross personally. But Ross’s literary aspirations were short-lived. He dropped out of the legendary Yale English course “Daily Themes.” Ross said this decision “saved me from the life of poverty,” a claim he also made during an interview with Charlie Rose in 2010. After graduation, he packed his bags for Harvard Business School and eventually ascended to the upper echelons of Wall Street, where he became famous for flipping failing businesses. He said, “the only poetry I write now is occasionally for a friend’s birthday party. I’ll do a little poem or something like that.”

He dropped out of the legendary Yale English course “Daily Themes.” Ross said this decision “saved me from the life of poverty.”

Ross’s transformation into a financial titan and member of Trump’s political circle, however, was not totally unexpected to some of his peers. A classmate who wished to remain anonymous said that during Ross’s time at Yale, “he was very clearly paying attention to where he could have most upward mobility.” Ross was the president of his fraternity, a platoon sergeant in the Air Force ROTC, and a member of an honors organization called the Yale Key. He sought out groups—and leadership positions in those groups—that allowed him to develop his personal standing and social network. “I believe he’s very aware of who he is and the reputational franchise he is trying to develop,” the classmate added. Ross argued there was nothing unique about his driven approach to college. “In those days, the working assumption of everybody that I knew in my hometown was that you could do better than your family had done, and I think by and large that people did,” he said.

In 2012, Ross was widely reported to be the “Grand Swipe,” or president, of Kappa Beta Phi, the secret fraternity of Wall Street leaders whose members include former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and the former heads of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns. Soon, he will likely enter one of the nation’s most prestigious societies: the United States Cabinet.

As a legacy student on scholarship who joined the establishment worlds of Yale and Wall Street, Ross could be cast as someone who understands the divide between disparate socioeconomic groups. Like Trump himself, the billionaire claims he will represent the interests of working-class Americans. “Middle class and lower middle class America has not really benefited by the last ten to fifteen years of economic activity and they’re sick and tired of it and they want something different,” Ross said in an interview with CNBC in June. It remains to be seen whether the would-be writer turned corporate titan will be capable of providing something different.

—Arya Sundaram

3 thoughts on “Yale Men in the Cabinet”

  1. Wonderful work! Great writing! This makes me proud to have worked on TNJ back in the day.

  2. I knew Will Ross as a fellow member of the Class of ’59 and as a brother Chi Phi. Under Will’s leadership, Chi Phi was a place to drink and to watch porn films, amply supplied by our townie bartender. I thought he was a welcome fellow deviant from the preppie image that was the vogue then. I think it augurs well for his being his own man in the Administration.

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