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One of Our Own

Just hours before the publication of a Daily Mail article which would accuse him in detail of physically and emotionally abusing both of his ex-wives, former White House staff secretary Robert R. Porter ’02 reportedly offered a pair of explanations: His first wife had inadvertently managed to punch herself in the face during an argument over a glass vase. The second was simply a “fucking bitch.”

That sparse pair of excuses was apparently enough for Chief of Staff John Kelly, who then released a statement calling Porter “a man of true integrity and honor.” Likewise for Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who described Robert Porter as a man of “exemplary character.” In a satisfying twist, the Intercept subsequently tweeted photographic evidence of Porter’s violent streak, sending the White House into a graceless backpedal. Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah expressed regret, and Kelly voiced an evidently newfound commitment to take “matters of domestic violence very seriously.”

All of this can be read like an ordinary story from a chaotic White House. Porter’s dismissal was nowhere near the most dramatic or contentious firing of the young administration: Omarosa Manigault-Newman and Steve Bannon left with substantially greater pyrotechnics. The lies surrounding the Porter collapse were also less naked than previous fictions. This is, after all, the same president who repeatedly claimed that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 election, and invented from thin air an entire terrorist attack in Sweden. What makes Porter special is not the violence or the coverup, but the entitlement behind both his behavior and that of the Trump administration.

From the very beginning, Porter had pedigree. He is the eldest son of Kennedy School professor Roger B. Porter and the late Dunster Faculty Dean Ann R. Porter. Two of his three siblings would also attend Harvard. The oldest Porter shined in Cambridge, becoming president of the Republican Club and chair of Harvard Students for Bush. Just like his father, Porter capped his Harvard experience with a Rhodes Scholarship. And after the Rhodes, Porter returned to campus for his law degree. Porter is the ultimate Harvard man.

Porter then parlayed his academic prestige into a promising career and an inside track to political power. After stints with Senators Rob Portman, Mike Lee, and Orrin Hatch, Porter was hired by Kelly and given direct access to the most powerful man on the planet. The president apparently raved about Porter’s academic triumphs, calling him “the smartest guy in the White House,” commenting on his multiple Harvard degrees, and noting that “even Gorsuch wasn’t a Rhodes Scholar.” The media was similarly enthusiastic about Porter’s resume. Even during his fall from grace, articles about Porter would routinely involve lines like “Porter is a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law, and in between, was a Rhodes Scholar.”

Much of the wildness of the Porter narrative is a product of this disjuncture, the tension between academic achievement and personal depravity. Many people believe that Harvard equals talent, and talent equals decency. This is untrue. Plenty of ethically rotten individuals have emerged from Harvard. Graduates of the Business School could be one example, as some have accused the school of playing an outsized role in promoting the avarice, hubris, and outright cruelty that resulted in the 2008 collapse of the world economic system. From their posts at Lehman Brothers, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and hedge funds the world over, Business School alumni did more than their fair share to destabilize the world economy. In this sense, Harvard graduates have built a world in which greed is good. Much of the University’s knowledge is harnessed for evil.

The most heinous statements from Porter’s ex-wives have nothing to do with physical violence. They are instead concerned with emotional abuse, specifically Porter’s habit of constantly belittling his wives to make himself feel big. One of Porter’s ex-wives commented that Porter is “very intelligent,” and had a habit of taking her words and glibly refashioning them “in a way that it would confuse me as to what I meant.” It is hard not to see in this a Harvard law degree at work. Porter took Harvard's tools and used them to torment his wife. The University produced a man who lorded his intelligence and knowledge over his wife, demeaned and berated her ceaselessly, and—when that failed—at least once concluded an argument with a right cross to the orbital.

The official mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” In this respect, Porter is a striking success. Harvard turned an ambitious teenager into one of the most powerful people in America. But in fulfilling its mission, the University also lent skills and credibility to a sickening excuse for a man. In its academic and social culture, in its basic ethos, Harvard can no longer afford to treat kindness and decency as secondary considerations.

Perhaps Harvard did not turn Porter into an awful coward, but at the very least, whatever is in him festered here. Shame is appropriate. Best of luck to his replacement, Derek Lyons, a graduate of the Law School.

Kiran O. Hampton ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a History and Literature concentrator in Eliot House.

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