Since winning the Republican nomination for Joe Biden’s Senate seat in Delaware (thanks in part to $150,000 in out-of-state Tea Party money), Christine O’Donnell has provided virtually all of the race’s rhetorical oxygen. She has been asked to explain why it took her 15 years to get her college degree; what exactly happened when, in high school, she and a witch had a midnight meal “on a satanic altar;” how serious she was when she campaigned publicly to stop people from masturbating; and why the IRS has taken a lien on her property for unpaid taxes.
O’Donnell’s reaction to the negative publicity surrounding her has been to refuse interviews with the national media and to cast her opponent, Chris Coons, as both an “elitist” and a “bearded Marxist.” (Something about the now-common conflation of these two terms always reminds me of the old “Saturday Night Live routine” in which Chevy Chase hawks a product called Shimmer: “It’s a floor wax! And a dessert topping!”)
Coons as a “Marxist” is an issue I know something about—so I’d like to add some context to the O’Donnell camp’s smear. Coons and I graduated from Amherst College in 1985, and it was at Amherst that he pinned himself with the descriptor. Amherst in the early 1980s was a place where you might find yourself sitting in a small lecture hall with James Baldwin, or the Dalai Lama; where David Foster Wallace studied literature, Dan Brown sang tenor in the Glee Club, and student activism ran strongly in favor of feminism and against apartheid. But off campus, Wall Street was booming, so, after graduation, a good many of our classmates—including, it seemed, the entire football team—went off to make their fortunes.
Coons, who had grown up wealthy and connected in Delaware, might well have followed this route. His mother was married to Robert Gore, whose family founded the company that makes Gore-Tex. Coons went to Tower Hill, a prestigious private school in Wilmington, and arrived at Amherst a self-proclaimed “Republican fanatic.” He campaigned for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and founded Amherst’s chapter of College Republicans three years later.
But then, in the spring of our senior year, Coons published a short essay in the student newspaper under the headline “Chris Coons: The Making of a Bearded Marxist.” During a semester in Kenya, he wrote, he had witnessed genuine poverty for the first time and felt himself sickened by wealthy Kenyans parroting “the same beliefs held by many Americans: the poor are poor because they are lazy, slovenly, uneducated.”
Shortly after this essay ran, Coons gave Amherst’s graduation address. He admonished the college for not fully divesting from South Africa; tipped his hat to student protests against racism and sexism on campus; and talked about the difference between the “power” of George Wallace and the “authority” of Martin Luther King. A yearbook photo showed him, in an Amherst t-shirt and red-and-white baseball cap, standing next to three African bushmen, two of them with spears.
What happened? To his friends, Coons wrote in his op-ed, Africa was like “a catalytic converter that takes in clean-shaven, clear-thinking Americans and sends back bearded Marxists.” Clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek, the remark, at least to my ear, expressed the ambivalence of a very smart young man navigating a return from the poverty of Kenya to a life of privilege. Delaware, after all, is a state known mainly for quietly siphoning out-of-state money from credit card fees and demanding registration payments from far-distant yachts and internet companies.
When his “bearded Marxist” quip came up during the Senate debate last week, Coons sounded aggravated that people didn’t get the joke. “I am not now, and I have never been, anything but a clean-shaven capitalist!” he said. Indeed, Coons considers himself a “fiscal conservative,” albeit one with strong liberal instincts. During the debate, he sharply criticized the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision—a position he acknowledged might seem counterintuitive, given his desire to represent a state he called “America's corporate capital.” He noted that, “in terms of political contributions, the free speech rights of corporations I don’t think deserve the same protections as the free speech rights of real living, breathing, voting humans."
Clearly, Coons’s comment from more than two decades ago was the rhetorical flourish of a college student, not a literal statement of political beliefs. Nonetheless, in retrospect, it seems to reveal an important philosophical lesson Coons learned at Amherst and in Africa—that the world is a complex place beyond the borders of a state known as “The Home of Tax Free Shopping.”
McKay Jenkins directs the journalism program at the University of Delaware. He is the author of a number of books, including The Last Ridge: The Epic Story of America's First Mountain Troops and the Assault on Hitler's Europe. His new book What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World will be published by Random House in April.