Is there anything people wouldn’t believe about Ted Cruz? A few months ago, someone sent Jezebel a tip about the rising Republican presidential candidate’s days as a Princeton undergraduate. It was a story that seemed both unlikely and physiologically improbable, but I figured I might as well ask around, just in case.
This is a man, after all, who left a strong enough impression during his Ivy League days that his undergraduate roommate once declared, “I would rather have anybody else be the president of the United States. Anyone. I would rather pick somebody from the phone book.” Before he was a spectacularly disliked senator, trying to leverage his colleagues’ disdain into “outsider” status, he was a comically unpopular college student and a member of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society, Princeton’s 250-year-old debate club.
The stories published thus far about the young Cruz’s time at Princeton, and later at Harvard Law, already paint quite a portrait: A fellow law student who once gave him a ride from New York to Cambridge told the Boston Globe that he immediately asked for her IQ and SAT score; the Daily Beast quoted several students who regarded him as “creepy” and recalled that he would walk through the women’s dorm in a paisley bathrobe. His aforementioned freshman year roommate, the screenwriter Craig Mazin, has called him “a huge asshole” and “a nightmare of a human being.” A fellow debater who often traveled to debates with Cruz described him, witheringly, as “an extreme fan of the Les Misérables soundtrack.”
Armed with this context, when Jezebel received this anonymous tip detailing an absurd sexual rumor that was allegedly going around about Cruz his freshman year in college, we immediately began to look into it. This involved describing a frankly disgusting alleged scenario over the phone to one fortysomething Ivy Leaguer after another, as tactfully as possible, while making sure to characterize it as only a rumor, and likely untrue.
“Ew!” multiple people yelped in response. “Oh, God, no,” another murmured. “I’ve certainly never heard anything like that,” one alumnus said.
Ultimately, no one could substantiate the allegation that this particular rumor had even existed as a rumor, much less provide any factual basis for it. Because of this, I can’t print it here, despite its considerable entertainment value. But even as it became clear that this was a dead end, I kept making phone calls. Ted Cruz’s former classmates, it turns out, have a hell of a lot to say about him.
I emailed more than 75 people in an effort to corroborate the original tip, and spoke on the phone with nearly 20. In a political climate that values ideals and rhetoric above accepted fact, it can start to seem like any insane, nefarious story about a politician’s past is probably true—especially a candidate like Ted Cruz, whose overtly ruthless campaign tactics have set him apart from the rest of the Republican hopefuls.
But as one former debater pointed out, “This guy has wanted to run for elected office since the day that he was born.” Another told me in an email that Cruz “was a guy who avoided mud at all times.”
In early December, I contacted Sarah Hougen Poggi ’92, who’d left a comment on a New York Times op-ed detailing how she stopped attending Whig-Clio meetings because “I simply could not deal with his rudeness.”
“He didn’t become more civil or well-mannered” over the next four years, Poggi told me over email. “When anyone in my class and I talk about him there is no one who breaks in and says ‘Come on guys, he wasn’t so bad.’”
Poggi couldn’t help with our tip, but she did connect me with another alum named Leonard Nalencz, who, despite not having known Cruz personally, was so eager to assist in my quest that he mailed me his Princeton yearbook and offered, jokingly, to “give blood, go on a hunger strike, move to Baltimore, etc.”
“Everyone in my class that I’ve talked to is horrified that he’s a candidate,” he added. This is a sentiment that I heard quite a bit.
With the yearbook, I was able to piece together a list of students who might have known Cruz in college—students who lived in Butler College, his freshman year residential hall; students who were on the debate team; students who were members of Colonial, his eating club. Some were happy to hear from me; others less so. One responded to a three-line email inquiry (which did not contain the specifics of the rumor) by asking to be connected with my HR department, referring to my request for an interview as “a breach of privacy.”
Only a small percentage of the people who responded to my emails claimed to have known Cruz well (“I tried not to know him,” one woman from his dorm told me); almost all of them mentioned David Panton as one of Cruz’s few close friends. Panton, Cruz’s college debate partner, is now a supporter of the Cruz campaign. (“Despite what you may have heard in the media, the truth is that Ted Cruz was actually very well liked by many at Princeton,” Panton told Jezebel in an emailed statement. “Ted and I had many mutual friends who would usually stop by to watch movies, play video games, or even engage in long, fun discussions about politics, philosophy, and life.”)
Many Princeton alums I interviewed, speaking under conditions of anonymity, had harsh words for their former classmate. One such person, who studied with Cruz at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and asked not to be named in this story, referred to him as a “monster geek” who was “constantly dominating the conversation in order to get the attention of the professor.” She reported having such intense feelings of dislike towards Cruz during a public policy conference their junior year that “I had a complete allergy towards the [law] profession when it was over.”
“I was stunned that he would be the one that ended up [running for] president out of our class,” she added, “because he’s about as telegenic as an undertaker.”
“There are not that many people in my life who I can think of who I didn’t actually have extensive interactions with who bring up such bad feelings,” said Mikaela Beardsley, who lived in the same residential college as Cruz during their freshman year at Princeton, in 1988.
Beardsley says that she and Cruz, who lived next door to her close friend, would occasionally get into political arguments when she came by. “I’m a classic blue state anti-death penalty pro-choice liberal—I represent everything wrong with America, as far as Ted Cruz is concerned,” she said during a phone conversation, laughing. “We would just yell at each other.”
“And when he became Senator, I was like, ‘Oh my God, he called my mother a whore!’”
He did? According to Beardsley, the two were having an “intellectual debate” about abortion one day, when she disclosed that her mother had once ended a pregnancy. “I remember telling him [that] my mother had two children, they really couldn’t afford to have another child, they really would have struggled. And it was a very difficult, painful decision for my mother.” At that point, she said, “he became vicious and made it personal,” eventually telling her, in his loving way, “that my mother was going to hell and was a whore.”
“He made me cry, he was really awful,” she added. (Two other students who lived in Butler at the time recalled Beardsley and Cruz getting into an argument over abortion that resulted in tears.) “It was one of the worst things that anyone’s ever said to me.”
(Cruz’s campaign has not responded to an email asking for comment on Beardsley’s allegation, or to multiple requests for comment on our story.)
As the tip I was originally investigating was sexual in nature, a subject central to my interviews was Cruz’s sex life in college, which is not something either I or my interview subjects really wanted to dwell on. No one I spoke with who lived in Butler College could recall anything about Cruz’s experiences with women, which seem to have been confined to the debate circuit.
“Ted’s romantic life was extraordinarily limited, not that he wanted it that way,” said Stephen Wunker, who was on the debate team a year ahead of Cruz. “Ted was never one to, you know, chat up a woman, or have an easy sort of to-and-fro.”
That said, Patricia Murphy’s Daily Beast report mentions that “he was remembered to be ‘sort of a stud’ with girls on the debate circuit.” Several other debaters, speaking anonymously, agreed with this assessment—but according to Dae Levine, a Barnard alum and former Columbia debater in Cruz’s year, “He was never one to stay late [at parties], or to let down his guard.” A few debaters vaguely recalled him having a girlfriend; several individuals remembered being surprised when they’d learned this fact.
In naked but non-sexual news, multiple classmates who asked for anonymity recounted Cruz participating in the “Nude Olympics,” a (now defunct) Princeton tradition in which members of the sophomore class got drunk and ran around campus sans clothing during the first snow of the year. According to several classmates, none of whom were firsthand witnesses, Cruz was said to have run the wrong way and was later seen naked and banging against the window of a locked dorm in an attempt to gain entrance.
Numerous as the secondhand accounts were, we were unable to confirm the nude-lockout incident. However, we did establish that the following spring, Cruz, who was a member of the Campus Safety Committee, appeared in at least five separate issues of the Daily Princetonian as a staunch opponent of the concept of locked entryways.
From the February 28, 1990 issue:
“I personally don’t think it’s the best way of improving safety,” Cruz said. “I think the effect (locked entryways will have) in keeping people out of dorms is negligible. I do think it serves to be an inconvenience of being restrictive.”
From the April 13, 1990 issue:
In an interview before the debate, Cruz said he understands the university’s concern for security but said the locked entryway proposal is misguided.
From the April 18, 1990 issue:
Cruz’ only attempt to broach the topic of keeping entries unlocked was met by a mock-impassioned “Ted! Ted! Give it up, Ted!” from Witsil.
In results similar to the Daily Beast report, several sources, speaking on conditions of anonymity, independently referred to Cruz as “creepy.” A woman who lived in his dorm explained this diagnosis: “He was kind of this liminal character. I did not experience him as threatening, although other people may have.”
“He was just sort of an odious figure lurking around,” another dorm-mate said.
“The very first thing he ever said to me was ‘Hi, I’m Ted Cruz, I assume I can count on your vote for student body president,’” said David Mountain, a former classmate who also lived in Butler College. “At the end of the day, university politics is a popularity contest, and I don’t think he really understood that. Aside from his obsessive desire to be student body president, you would not have had him pegged for a career in politics.”
Cruz lost multiple student government elections in college, among them class president and campus and community affairs chair; he was eventually elected to Princeton University Council, and was president of the Ivy Council. He also lost a bid for president of the debate panel in 1990, but subsequently held other leadership positions.
Previous reporting on Cruz’s largely successful career as an undergraduate debater (in 1992, he and partner David Panton were named the top two collegiate debaters in the country) indicates that his allegedly overzealous off-duty argument with Beardsley wasn’t necessarily out of character. “I don’t think that Ted ever had a really good sense of when to rein it back,” teammate Monica Youn told the New York Times in April.
Levine, the former Columbia debater who also served with Cruz on the national board of the American Parliamentary Debate Association, was diplomatic in her assessment of Cruz: “I would say that there are elements of Ted’s debate prowess that I respect, but we were not what I would consider friends.”
“There was nothing spontaneous about Ted Cruz as a debater,” she said, adding that this didn’t go over well with fellow debaters, because the American Parliamentary Debate style emphasizes improvisation. “While nobody would argue with his intellect or his precision, there are definitely debaters who I would consider more extemporaneously talented than Ted Cruz as speakers and as leaders.”
Shawn Halbert, a fellow Princeton debater who also attended Harvard Law with Cruz, expressed irritation with some of his debate tactics. “He was known in debate circles for frequently telling the story of his father coming to the U.S. with the money in his underpants; he was very attached to that image,” she said.
Many of the people I spoke to were unable, after 25 years, to recall specific anecdotes to explain their dislike for Cruz; others emphasized that his unpopularity stemmed more from who he was than from any actions taken in particular. “I strongly believed that he wasn’t someone you would want to trust with a modicum of power,” Halbert said. “In my opinion, he was not regarded in the group as a person with substantial integrity.”
“There was no casual conversation with Ted Cruz,” Levine said. “I remember him being completely competitive, laser-focused on winning and not on socializing.” She continued: “His conservatism, added to his calculated nature, added to his antisocial behavior, created this persona that was a bit of a villain. Now, did he want that? Maybe. He certainly kept winning rounds. It worked for him.”
She added, of Cruz’s legacy as a debater: “He holds a special place, I think, as a success story, because he was not universally liked and yet he did very well on the debate circuit, which is a circuit that is very much about personality.”
On the heels of Cruz’s big win in Iowa, this theme is still apparent; a consistent lack of straightforward personal appeal—something long considered necessary for political success—has not held Cruz back in 2016, just like it hasn’t held Donald Trump back, or even Bernie Sanders (Hillary Clinton, it should be noted, has also not managed to free herself from these particular chains). The idea that a presidential candidate must be likable, or even good, has appeared to diminish significantly since even 2012; Ted Cruz, in a rise that proved surprising to many of the people I spoke to for this story, has managed to launch an increasingly successful presidential primary campaign on the back of his terrible personality.
Stephen Wunker was one of the few people willing to speak with me who described Cruz as a friend, despite disagreeing with his politics. “Ted was not the type to go broad in his friendships and have a million casual acquaintances,” he said. But “I could always trust Ted, he was always very responsible, as 18-year-olds go.”
Wunker, a registered Democrat, told me: “I did contribute to Ted’s Senate campaign thinking he never had a chance, doing it out of solidarity for a former friend, and here he is.”
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.