Thursday, September 6, 2007

The saga of Patrick Henry ... College

The story of tiny Patrick Henry College, a school in Virginia that has a high percentage of students that were home-schooled by conservative Christian parents and has become a feeder for government internships, has gotten a lot of mileage.
I mentioned it in a story two years ago about Christian parents choosing to home-school their children. But, of course, I was not the first to the story. Hanna Rosin was. And now Rosin has a book about PHC titled "God's Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America," reviewed this week by Newsweek.

The book originated with an article Rosin wrote two years ago for The New Yorker. Here's the lede:
In the last days before the 2004 Presidential election, Patrick Henry College, in Purcellville, Virginia, excused all its students from classes, because so many of them were working on campaigns or wanted to go to the swing states to get out the vote for George W. Bush. Elisa Muench, a junior, was interning in the White House’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, which is overseen by Karl Rove. On Election Day, she stood on the South Lawn with the rest of the White House staff to greet the President and Mrs. Bush as they returned from casting their votes in Texas. Muench cheered along with everyone else, but she was worried. Her office was “keeping up contact with Karl,” and she knew that the early exit polls were worse than expected. Through the night, she watched the results, as Bush’s electoral-vote total began to rise. The next morning, after Kerry conceded, she stood in the crowd at the Bush campaign’s victory party, in clothes she’d been wearing all night, and “cried and screamed and laughed, it was so overwhelming.”

I found Muench in the Patrick Henry cafeteria at lunchtime one day a few months later. She is twenty-one years old and has clear, bright hazel eyes and sandy-brown hair that she straightens and then curls with an iron. Patrick Henry is a Christian college, though it is not affiliated with any denomination, and it gives students guidelines on “glorifying God with their appearance.” During class hours, the college enforces a “business casual” dress code designed to prepare the students for office life—especially for offices in Washington, D.C., fifty miles to the east, where almost all the students have internships, with Republican politicians or in conservative think tanks. When I met Muench, she was wearing a cardigan and a navy skirt. The boys in the cafeteria all had neatly trimmed hair, and wore suits or khakis and button-down shirts; girls wore slacks or skirts just below the knee, and sweaters or blouses. Most said grace before eating, though they did it silently and discreetly, with a quick bow of the head.

Muench told me that she loved working for Rove—answering the phone and having a senator on the line, meeting Andrew Card, the chief of staff (“He’s a nice guy”), and Vice-President Dick Cheney (“He’s really funny”). She took a bus from Patrick Henry at six every morning to arrive at the White House by seven-thirty. Her work with Rove, she told me, affirmed her belief that he was a political genius.

In her sophomore year, Muench had become the first—and, so far, the only—woman at Patrick Henry to run for a student-government executive office, when she entered the race for vice-president. Campaigns are unusually intense at Patrick Henry; candidates hire pollsters and form slates. One of Muench’s friends, Matthew du Mée, was on an opposing slate, and the race caused a strain. (Both lost.) Muench’s internship with Rove has given her a reputation, much envied on campus, as someone worth knowing. The day we spoke, a sophomore leaned across the table and asked, “How much do you make, starting salary, working on the Hill?”

“I’m not sure,” Muench said.

“I heard one of the graduates working for Joe Pitts is making, like, thirty-two thousand dollars. That’s not that much.” (Pitts is a Republican congressman.)

“Well, it’s not too bad if you’re a single person,” Muench told him.

“Do you have any intentions of running for office?” the sophomore asked.

“Yes,” she said.

At that moment, Muench’s cell phone rang. It was Cheney’s office, calling to thank her for volunteering for the Vice-President’s Christmas party, and to ask if she would allow her name to be put on a list for future openings.

Muench, like eighty-five per cent of the students at Patrick Henry, was homeschooled, in her case in rural Idaho. Homeschoolers are not the most obvious raw material for a college whose main mission, since its founding, five years ago, has been to train a new generation of Christian politicians. Politics, after all, is the most social of professions, and many students arrive at Patrick Henry having never shared a classroom with anyone other than their siblings. In conservative circles, however, homeschoolers are considered something of an élite, rough around the edges but pure—in their focus, capacity for work, and ideological clarity—a view that helps explain why the Republican establishment has placed its support behind Patrick Henry, and why so many conservative politicians are hiring its graduates.

It's a long story -- not by New Yorker standards, but still long -- but it's worth reading the rest. And if you do, let me know what you think are the benefits and dangers of a small school like PHC being such a feeder of young politicos.

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