The Stanford historian David M. Kennedy has spent a career as an authority on American society and politics; winner of a Pulitzer Prize, he wrote one of the most popular textbooks on American history and has delved into a number of controversies and political movements. But he has struggled to come up with any analogue from the past for what he describes as the “insurrection” at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. “This is a unique moment,” he says, “where a degree of insanity and irrationality has infected a large enough sector of our body politic that we’re really sick. I think we are politically sick, and I use that word advisedly.”
Kennedy doesn’t see the Capitol rioters as the only symptom, and he doesn’t hold them solely responsible for the country’s current malady. Blame—and, he says, “shame”—also lie with elected leaders who furthered President Donald Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the election. And among the most prominent of them is one of Kennedy’s former students, “arguably the most gifted student I taught in 50 years”: Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri.
From 1998 to 2002, Kennedy was Hawley’s adviser at Stanford. Hawley, a history major who graduated with honors and wrote a thesis about Theodore Roosevelt, wasn’t just another young man in a hurry, passing through a top university. Kennedy remembers him as deeply engaged and thoughtful, and a serious scholar of the Constitution.
Then, after the election, the professor watched in shock as his former star student became the first senator to say he would challenge the certification of Joe Biden’s win, openly trying to prevent the people’s chosen president from taking office. On January 6, Hawley was photographed giving a raised fist to protesters outside the Capitol as he walked in, planning to object to the electoral results. Even after the rioters breached the Senate chamber and violently interrupted the process, he refused to backtrack on his claims, refuted by court ruling after court ruling, of “irregularities” and “fraud” in the election.
“I absolutely could not have predicted that the bright, idealistic, clear-thinking young student that I knew would follow this path,” says Kennedy. “What Hawley and company were doing was kind of the gentlemanly version of the pointless disruption that happened when the mob invaded the Capitol.”
Conversations with more than a dozen of Hawley’s Stanford classmates and a half-dozen faculty members who knew him all raise versions of the same question: What happened to the person they knew?
Like Kennedy, they paint a portrait of a studious intellectual who was ambitious but principled. At a largely liberal, secular campus, Hawley was open about being a conservative Christian—but not dogmatically so. Many say they simply can’t square the man they knew with the one they’ve seen splashed across their TV screens and social media feeds in the past few weeks.
Hawley’s response to the election has already gotten him denounced by his longtime political mentor in Missouri, called to resign or be expelled by some of his Senate colleagues, vilified by columnists and editorial boards across the political spectrum, and condemned by more than a thousand of his fellow alumni. Meanwhile, he’s been embraced by the likes of Pat Buchanan and Tucker Carlson. How has a man educated at some of America’s most prestigious institutions ended up positioning himself as an anti-elite heir to Trump?
Hawley declined to be interviewed, and his office did not respond to specific questions about this article. Some of the explanation for his transformation lies in his journey into elected politics since he left Stanford, climbing from Yale Law grad to attorney general of Missouri to senator in just over a decade. Part of the answer also lies in the particular politics of our era, when Trump has pulled his party away from its longtime policy values and moved it sharply in a more populist direction. But the years Hawley spent in college, despite the noticeable differences in his character, offer some insights into his more recent behavior.
It was no secret Hawley had his eyes on public office from a very early age, and, if anything, the image his undergraduate peers and professors most often saw back then was one carefully crafted to help get him there. It’s possible, if not likely, that Hawley’s rebranding is just another instance in a long line of moves to position himself, ultimately, for the presidency.
“It’s a pretty cynical calculation,” says Kennedy. “But that’s the only explanation I think that fits the facts.”
‘He was not like that at all’
Josh Hawley grew up in Lexington, Missouri, roughly an hour outside Kansas City, with a father who was a banker and a mother who was a teacher—and herself a Stanford graduate. He arrived at the university’s idyllic campus in the heart of Silicon Valley in the fall of 1998. It was the height of the first dot-com bubble. Computer science graduate students Larry Page and Sergey Brin had just signed the paperwork to incorporate their search engine, BackRub, under the new name Google, Inc. It seemed nearly everyone on campus had visions of dropping out of college and becoming the next Jerry Yang, the Stanford alum who founded Yahoo, which had recently been dubbed an internet “kingmaker.”
In Washington, President Bill Clinton’s impeachment was just getting underway, but on the Palo Alto campus, aside from the spectacle of Secret Service officers trailing first daughter Chelsea, then a sophomore, or the U.S. marshals camped out behind the freshman dorm of Ken Starr’s daughter, Carolyn, the collective undergraduate population couldn’t have cared less. While students generally embraced a socially liberal ethos, few were actively engaged in politics.
In that sense, Hawley stood out early on. As a prep school student before college, he had already written several political columns for his hometown newspaper, and at Stanford, he joined the Stanford Review, the right-wing student publication founded more than a decade earlier by Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel. There are few indications Hawley was particularly interested in or concerned about the burgeoning Big Tech scene, as he is today. But, unlike the vast majority of his peers at the time, he was clearly a conservative and inclined toward politics.
“He was very certain of his political ideology, even at that age, even at 18,” says Brooke Eisele, who also wrote for the Review and was a close friend of Hawley’s from the time they both lived in the same freshman dorm. “I think a lot of us came in with our predispositions and kind of felt things out and shaped ourselves there. He came in with a rock-solid view of the world.”
According to numerous classmates, Hawley nonetheless was friendly with liberals, and his worldview, while uncommon within the student body, was not outside the mainstream. Eisele, who until recently worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the Republican majority but has lost touch with Hawley, describes him as having been “a classic conservative in every sense of the word.” Brad Gregory, another former history professor of Hawley’s who now teaches at Notre Dame, says of Hawley’s beliefs: “It was entirely an intellectually responsible, sort of traditional, Burkean conservatism—the importance of tradition, the importance of established institutions, limited government, individual responsibility and freedom.”
His sophomore year, Hawley told the student newspaper he believed there was a “continual decline at Stanford of any political activism.” But to the extent that he himself was an activist, it was over relatively mundane causes such as the debate, seemingly perpetual at Stanford, over what the university’s core humanities curriculum should entail. Hawley, with his friend Rachel Scarlett-Trotter, formed a student group called Freedom Forum that advocated for the inclusion of more texts that force students to “examine the ideas and thinkers that have shaped western civilization.” (Scarlett-Trotter declined to comment for this story.)
Hawley’s other writings for the Review, fellow members of the student publication say, were far from incendiary, as the publication often can be. In one piece, Hawley took on affirmative action, but only to say that students of color ought to be given more tools to succeed long before they go to college.
“He wasn’t like one of these people like Stephen Miller, who was excoriating liberals and fueling culture wars on campus, at least not that I was aware of,” says a classmate who knew Hawley but spoke only on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of being targeted violently by supporters of the senator. Emeritus Professor Jack Rakove, another teacher and mentor to Hawley, similarly distinguished Hawley from his last advisee, incoming Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice’s Trump-supporting son, who graduated from Stanford last year. On campus, John Rice-Cameron “adopted this kind of provocative conservative character, sometimes even offensive, like, ‘Let’s own the libs,’ or whatever,” Rakove says. “Josh wasn’t like that. He was not like that at all.”
Still, some classmates say, there were hints of Hawley’s current brand of politics, which has a populist tinge but appears to be anchored by a Christian nationalist viewpoint. Several of them remember him as someone who took his evangelical faith seriously enough to shape his civic worldview. Colin Mathewson, who did Bible study with Hawley when they lived in the same freshman dorm and was his roommate one summer in D.C., when Hawley interned at The Heritage Foundation, says Hawley’s politics seemed to come “from a religious source and had a religious kind of purpose to it. In my experience with Josh, the politics were secondary to what the sort of religious truth was.”
Another classmate recalls Hawley, who today loudly decries America’s increasing ungodliness, talking about a “communitarian brand of social conservatism,” in contrast with the libertarianism most other campus conservatives espoused.
Thinking back to Hawley’s senior year, Rakove, the history professor, remembers a departmental commencement address Hawley gave that reflected “the view that there was a kind of moral consistency to conservative thinking that might be absent from other points along the ideological spectrum.” Rakove has long forgotten the exact content of the speech, he says, but the theme and tone were more memorable.
Hawley wrote his honors thesis about the political philosophies of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Kennedy, who advised him on the work, says he can see early indications of Hawley’s present-day ideology there: Hawley rejected Roosevelt’s more statist impulses, according to Kennedy, but was “tempted” by the Rooseveltian view that “the role of government is to foster communitarian thinking and sentiment.” In the 2008 book Hawley published based on his thesis (subtitled “Preacher of Righteousness” and with a laudatory foreword by Kennedy), Hawley wrote approvingly of Roosevelt’s view of politics as a “profoundly moral enterprise.” More recently, the senator has gone on to emulate the 26th president in his emergence as a conservative-populist trustbuster, while even more fervently than Roosevelt incorporating anti-secularism into his communitarian politics.
Other classmates, however, say that while Hawley was ardently against abortion, his faith during college seemed less an obvious motivation for his political aspirations and more a guide for his social interactions. Friends of Hawley’s told POLITICO they didn’t ever see Hawley drink, smoke or “bring a girl back” to his dorm room. By many accounts, he preferred to stay in and study on weekend nights than to go out and party.
“I didn’t even realize until last week that the Josh Hawley in the news was the Josh Hawley that lived in Donner,” says Scott Finkelstein, one of the resident assistants in Hawley’s freshman dorm. “I mean, he was pretty quiet as far as I remember.”
‘He had his eyes on the prize’
According to nearly everyone who shared recollections of Hawley, it was clear that his subdued profile wasn’t just because of an innate conservatism. He was also guarding his reputation because he had his sights set on public office.
Carolyn Doolittle, Ken Starr’s daughter, met Hawley as a freshman. She told POLITICO: “Most freshmen are on a journey to discover who they are and what strengths they have to offer the world, but Josh seemed to have already completed that process by the time he arrived at Stanford.”
A second acquaintance who asked not to be named remembers being in a dorm-room discussion his freshman or sophomore year in which Hawley earnestly and explicitly expressed to a group of peers that he wanted, eventually, to be president of the United States. (At that time, Hawley is said to have surmised that he might have an easier path to the White House running as a conservative Democrat from Missouri, citing President Clinton, who was elected from Hawley’s birth state, Arkansas.)
“The joke was—and it wasn’t really a joke—the assumption was that he had his eyes on the presidency eventually. And I think he conducted himself with that in mind,” says Hawley’s former close friend Eisele. “He was nice and funny and smart, and so you wanted to hang out with him and talk to him, but then when people started drinking and letting loose and having fun in the more sort of traditional college way, he would always hold back.”
A classmate who was in the same study abroad cohort with Hawley at Oxford University in the fall of 2000, when they were juniors, recalls an incident that he says typified Hawley’s determination to maintain a “clean image.” While Hawley was sitting in a chair waiting for a house meeting to start, a female housemate came by and “jokingly tried to dance provocatively in front of him.” According to the classmate who relayed the story, Hawley immediately stood up and walked away, saying something like, “No, no, we’re not doing this.”
“This was, of course, before the age of cellphones with cameras, so he must have been really concerned about being seen behaving quote-unquote inappropriately in front of others,” the classmate says.
“I think he was just—he had his eyes on the prize,” adds Eisele.
Hawley’s professors noticed the same thing. Gregory, the historian, says he remembers making a prediction to colleagues at the time Hawley was a student: “He would eventually become at least a U.S. senator,” Gregory guessed. “It sounds like a crazy thing to say about any undergraduate, but he really was that extraordinary.”
The classmate who spoke to POLITICO anonymously for fear of violence suggested that image was at least partly cultivated. Hawley would make a point to meet with professors outside of class, to seek out prestigious advisers and to win academic awards, the classmate said, adding, “It was clear he was positioning himself for advancement.”
Kennedy witnessed that sense of ambition firsthand. He describes first meeting Hawley in the fall of 1998, when he appeared at the professor’s office asking whether he could study the American presidency under Kennedy through guided reading assignments. Kennedy says he was reluctant, and thought Hawley was just an overeager freshman. Yet Hawley insisted, so Kennedy gave him a reading list of “very, very weighty works” going back to the 19th century, “thinking I would never see him again.”
To his surprise, Hawley returned about a month later saying he had finished the books and wanted more. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s impossible,’” Kennedy says. “So, I started asking him some questions about what he allegedly read, and he answered every question just absolutely superbly well. He not only read this stuff, he’d read it carefully. He had critical perspective on it. He answered questions at the level of an advanced doctoral candidate or even a faculty colleague.” According to Kennedy, “that’s when the light went on in my head that this was not just an ordinary Stanford student.”
Not everyone admired Hawley’s focus on meticulously fashioning his profile. As soon as he arrived on campus, he joined the freshman men’s rowing team—a grueling experience, according to teammates, that included early mornings on the water and afternoon workouts in the gym.
One teammate, who asked not to be named, also for fear of retribution from Hawley’s supporters, felt Hawley complained too much at practice and didn’t put in the same effort as others. “There was a lot of entitlement mentality,” the rower says. “Like, ‘This should be different because I want it to be different.’ I also got that he was more interested in appearing to be an athlete than actually being an athlete.”
Hawley only lasted weeks on the team before quitting. Bard Luippold, another rower, says Hawley cited a shoulder injury from an exercise that wasn’t part of the team’s training regimen. “I just felt like Josh didn’t want to stay with us, like he didn’t want to make it work, and that he had chosen himself over the team,” Luippold recalls. “That impression stuck with me.” A third crew teammate, who says he is surprised that Hawley refers to himself as a college rower to this day, adds, “When you look at what happened over the last year, maybe he’s just really not a good team player overall.”
‘He knows better’
On January 4, a group of prominent historians and constitutional scholars put out a statement warning against anti-democratic efforts to oppose the election certification. Two of the signatories were Hawley’s mentors at Stanford, Kennedy and Rakove. Yet two days later, Hawley went ahead with his challenge anyway—a decision Kennedy calls “irresponsible,” “pigheaded” and “absolutely reprehensible.” Rakove describes it as “despicable.” Both say they haven’t seen Hawley in years. Kennedy says he used to stay somewhat in touch with Hawley and even attended his 2017 attorney general inauguration in Missouri. But, “for reasons I have no idea how to explain, he has not responded to my last several emails over the last few months,” the former mentor sighs.
“To me, it’s a great mystery why someone so young with so much promise would prostitute himself or compromise himself so early when he didn’t really have to do it. He was not politically dependent on Trump to make his career in Missouri politics,” adds Rakove. “But I’m not as surprised as I am depressed.”
Hawley’s professors and classmates have found themselves poring over their memories of the now-senator—considering the thinkers he studied, and the ideas he appeared to take seriously—and feeling even more confused about why he seems to have emerged to stand so strongly against those principles.
“Hawley is misrepresenting basic elements of free speech and constitutional democracy, and he knows better than that,” says Jim Steyer, another Stanford professor who didn’t teach Hawley but remembers him as a student. “He knew better as a freshman at Stanford, for gosh sake.”
“All I feel is a sense of just utter bewilderment and tremendous sadness,” says Gregory, the history professor who is now at Notre Dame.
Many classmates who knew Hawley express dismay that he came out as a Trump supporter to begin with. “That’s clearly not who he was as a student,” says Brian Ball, a fellow history major who took classes with Hawley and also wrote for the conservative Review. “I mean, every Republican has been pressured not to go directly against Trump, but he didn’t have to go as pro-Trump as he did.”
“It’s been bothering me,” says Eisele, who was once a close friend, “just trying to square the current reality with my memory of him when he was younger. The Josh I knew in college was very logical and he had a deep respect for democratic institutions and the Constitution.”
“He’s extremely sharp and always thinking two steps ahead, so the only thing I can think is that he knows what he’s doing is wrong, but he’s calculating that it’s going to help his political career,” Eisele says. “That’s the part I didn’t see when we were younger. I guess I didn’t see the calculation. Maybe I was just naive.”
Perhaps most distressed of all is literatures, cultures and languages professor Elizabeth Bernhardt, who says she knew Hawley during all four years he was at Stanford and later attended his wedding. She met Hawley at the end of his freshman year, when he was applying to take her class in “Sophomore College,” a selective, academically intense, three-week program for students entering their second year.
Bernhardt’s class was called “Letters and Diaries of Resistance in Fascist Germany,” and she says it earned the subtitle from students of “a course about doing the right thing.” The first sentence of the syllabus in 1999, when Hawley took the class, was: “How one develops the courage to do what is right and maintains the strength to resist evil in the face of personal persecution are fundamental human dilemmas.” Through reading a series of letters, diaries and memoirs from Nazi Germany, the syllabus continues, students were exposed to individuals who had “the courage, the intellectual and/or spiritual means, or the strength to speak and act against the evil with which they were confronted.”
Hawley even mentioned the class in 2002, during a speech at his Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony, offering that what he learned from it became “so much a part of me.”
Bernhardt says she was first surprised when she saw Hawley continue to stand by Trump after the president’s “both sides” response to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “You can only put seeds in your students’ heads and hope that they take away the right lessons,” she says, but after the events of January 6, “there isn’t any question” Hawley took the wrong lessons from her class. Speaking over the phone last week, through what sounded like tears, she confided, “I feel like a failure.”
Bernhardt, who identifies as liberal but says she never took serious issue with Hawley’s conservatism at Stanford, says she cared about Hawley, even tapping him later on to be a teaching assistant, and that she now feels “deeply, deeply hurt that he would go down this path.” She added: “I have sat many an evening looking at my husband and saying, ‘Can you believe that we knew this person?’ Because he was a very committed Christian, and he and I talked a lot about Christianity. And I don’t know how you could be a committed Christian and follow that path at the same time.”
“This was a smart person, the kind of person that you want to have in class, but the one that you hope goes on the right road, not the wrong road. I would have thought that he was going to end up being the most brilliant statesman that I could imagine,” Bernhardt said. “I just didn’t expect a mindless follower.”