A Pisher’s Privilege

On the brink of the publication of his first book, a memoir-cum-sociology-tract called Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, Ross Gregory Douthat was looking earnest and somber in tan cords and a navy V-necked sweater, lunching on a B.L.T. at a restaurant called Dishes near the Washington, D.C., offices of The Atlantic Monthly, where he works as a reporter-researcher. “People always ask you when you have a book coming out, ‘Which would be better, to have it be well reviewed or to have it sell a lot of copies?'” said Mr. Douthat, who is 25, baby-faced and bearded. “And I’d say, ‘Both, of course!’ And that’s the classic ambitious person’s response. Harvard teaches you to want both things.” He ordered a piece of apple pie.

Mr. Douthat is the latest example of a relatively new and somewhat alarming breed: the Ivy-educated instapundit. Gone are the days when new graduates would toil in journalism for a few years-as a copy boy or intern, perhaps-before getting their first meaningful byline, never mind their first book deal. Now we have bustling young upstarts like Mr. Douthat, who received a $120,000 advance from Hyperion for Privilege, which was excerpted in The Atlantic. He has a blog, of course (rather grandly called theamericanscene.com), and a network of powerful mentors, mostly conservatives (political theorist Harvey Mansfield blurbed his book; right-wing critic Andrew Sullivan hired him to sub-blog on andrewsullivan.com).

Mr. Douthat cites New York Times resident neocon David Brooks’ book Bobos in Paradise as an inspiration for his own work, along with William F. Buckley Jr.’s classic critique of upper education, God and Man at Yale; the work of Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe; and Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History. But is he a baby Brooks in the making or just another Jedediah Purdy? (Remember Mr. Purdy? The sapling author of the anti-irony tract For Common Things that was the big Knopf sensation of 1999? We didn’t think so.)

Shoulder Nibbling

While at Harvard, Mr. Douthat played the role of conservative gadfly, penning self-deprecating biweekly columns in The Harvard Crimson and editing the campus’ conservative paper, The Salient, where he wrote op-eds about U.S. policy in the Middle East and did a sort of proto-blog about goings-on around campus. “He was quite prominent on the scene, I would say, during his undergraduate career,” said Professor Mansfield, who taught Mr. Douthat in modern political philosophy. “People did read what he said. He had a way of putting it in a sort of attractive and provocative way without trying to shock people.”

Mr. Douthat was critical of Harvard’s rampant grade inflation, found the overwhelmingly wealthy students to be interested only in their summer internships, and thought most humanities courses were oppressively P.C. and not rigorous enough. In Privilege, he refers to Harvard as a place where “canons are scorned, books exist only as texts to be deconstructed by eager theorists, willfully obscurantist writing is championed over accessible prose, and every mention of ‘truth’ is to be placed in sneering quotation marks.” He harbored nostalgia for a (possibly nonexistent) time when college students were interested in learning and not just résumé-padding, and when government service, the military or the priesthood were acceptable career choices for rich kids.

Mr. Douthat stuck out in part because of his passionate religiosity: He is strongly anti-abortion and said that “premarital chastity is something that as a Catholic and a Christian I aspire to.” (Although he has one serious former girlfriend-“Alice” in the book, who in real life is Baltimore Sun feature writer Abigail Tucker.)

When asked whether he’d “aspired” successfully, he blushingly answered: “I think I should probably take the Fifth.”

In Privilege, he describes semi-stalking one Rachel Polley, who seemed to tease him mercilessly for months on end, distracting him by hanging around his dorm room in skimpy tank tops and letting him nibble at her shoulders.

Though he wasn’t exactly a campus Romeo, Mr. Douthat seems to look upon his tenure at Harvard as a sort of golden time when he was a luminary in his own insulated world, before the pressures of the cutthroat media rat race set in. “One of the things about Harvard was that I was the only conservative columnist on The Crimson, so automatically, even if most people disagreed with me, I was a voice of something, and what I was saying was unique,” Mr. Douthat said somewhat wistfully. “What you realize when you come to Washington and see the welter of op-eds, and now with the blogs, is that the trouble with being a columnist is that there are 50,000 other columnists saying the same thing every day.”

Skinny-Dipping with Buckley

Mr. Douthat was raised in New Haven, Conn., alongside one younger sister. Their father was a lawyer and their mother primarily a homemaker. The family scene was a combination of crunchy hippiedom-“health-food camps,” etc.-Democratic politics and hard-core Catholicism, to which the entire family converted when Mr. Douthat was a teen. (His mother is also at work on a book, about this conversion.)

Young Ross moved rightward in his teenage years, partly as a form of youthful rebellion. He attended private school at Hamden Hall, in the shadow of the more prestigious prep academy Choate. There, he and his chum Mike Barbaro “managed to create a little media monopoly” (as Mr. Douthat put it) within the school, editing and writing the literary magazine, the official school newspaper and the underground paper.

“In high school, he authored a substantial portion of-if not a whole part of-a sci-fi novel, which I always mock him about,” said Mr. Barbaro, a reporter at The Washington Post who seems a bit in awe of his friend. “I always make fun of the name- Darkness Discovered, or some silly title. I think he sent that around to publishers and was really, really crestfallen when that didn’t get any response.”

Ms. Tucker (a.k.a. “Alice”), who dated Mr. Douthat for about a year right after their college graduation and remains a close pal, met him for the first time during a high-school debate tournament in Connecticut. “I remembered him as this guy who utterly trounced me and my partner in debate one day,” Ms. Tucker said. “I remembered he said something to his partner, something like, ‘We’ll squash them like insects.'”

Arriving at Harvard, Mr. Douthat had some vague political aspirations and briefly contemplated law school, but basically knew he wanted to be a writer, although he said that Harvard’s money-grubbing culture made him a bit anxious. “You know that your peers who go off and do consulting or Web design-or back then it was Silicon Valley-are going to be making, for the foreseeable future, twice as much money as you are, and living lifestyles twice as affluent as you are,” Mr. Douthat said. “But there are professions that are very respectable if you’re a kid at Harvard, and writing is clearly one of them-because even though it doesn’t have the financial rewards of some of the others, it does have the recognition and fame aspect.”

During his first two summers, while classmates were off interning at places like The Washington Post, Mr. Douthat made money writing SparkNotes-study aides for high-school students, like CliffsNotes-and failed to write a novel. His final summer before senior year, he interned at The National Review, at the feet of William F. Buckley Jr., which yielded one of the more memorable scenes in Mr. Douthat’s book-one more reminiscent of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog than of a right-wing political journal: Mr. Buckley took him, a classmate and the summer “boat boy”-a college kid from Yale-sailing. They all got drunk, stripped naked and jumped off the side of the boat.

One day not long before graduation, The Atlantic Monthly’s chairman, David Bradley, “sort of swept into The Crimson and said, ‘I’d like to interview 10 or 15 of your best people,'” according to Mr. Douthat. The Atlantic’s editors selected three of them, Mr. Douthat included, to serve as “Ninjas”-the magazine’s term for the young researchers staffing a new Washington, D.C., office who would be at the beck and call of the Boston writers and editors. Mr. Douthat started working there in the fall of 2003, after a mountain-climbing trip in Maine with Ms. Tucker. “We intended to climb the tallest, but we got up there and they told us the trails were full,” he said. “So we went for the second-tallest.”

‘They’re Ambitious, and I’m Ambitious’

The first few weeks in D.C. were somewhat slow. Mr. Douthat realized that he “had things that I wanted to say about Harvard and elite education and the whole culture of meritocracy and achievement and competition.” He didn’t want to do a polemic, though.

“It seemed like there hadn’t been anything written in a long time about the undergraduate experience from an undergraduate perspective,” he said. “You know, what you see is, people sort of parachute in …. David Brooks did a great piece for The Atlantic a couple of years ago called ‘The Organizational Kid,’ where he went to Princeton and he interviewed a bunch of Princeton kids and he sort of tried to get the sense of the place. And then you have Tom Wolfe with I Am Charlotte Simmons-a similar thing, you know: Older reporter goes and tries to be a fly on the wall at college, and so forth. Those were very good, but I felt like college from the point of view of the college student was fertile literary terrain.”

One of Mr. Douthat’s Harvard-bred co-workers had interviewed with a literary agent, Rafe Sagalyn, who had mentioned that she should send any “hot young Harvard writing talent” his way. When Mr. Douthat got wind of this, he eagerly sent his first few chapters along, which included ones about his freshman year and his failed attempt to join a snooty eating club. He added a few more sections and a book proposal, and Mr. Sagalyn started shopping it around. A handful of houses were interested.

“I think there was a tiny bit of bidding, but it wasn’t a bidding war,” Mr. Douthat said. He liked the acquiring editor at Hyperion, Ben Loehnen, another Harvard boy who had been a couple of years ahead of him and who even knew some of Mr. Douthat’s high-school acquaintances. “It’s sort of interesting,” Mr. Douthat said, “because so much of what I talk about in this book, in terms of the way that an elite education is mostly about who you know and the connections you make and so on-it completely played itself out in the way that my book ended up being published.”

Of his advance, Mr. Douthat remarked that it was “less than Peter Beinart’s” (the young New Republic editor who reportedly received $600,000 for a two-book deal from Doubleday).

Mr. Douthat spent less than a year writing the book, working on it in the evenings and during downtime at work, taking some unpaid time off from The Atlantic.

Now, on the eve of Privilege’s publication, anticipating an Ivy-covered tour that will bring him to read at the Harvard Co-op on March 10, Yale on the 30th and Columbia on the 31st, Mr. Douthat is all too aware of the bitter feelings that can surface as he attempts to stake a claim to a place in the public eye.

When asked whether he anticipated that any of his peers would be jealous, he responded: “I mean, I would be!” Then he caught himself: “I think that, yes, I spend a lot of my time being jealous of my peers’ achievements. So if someone else had written a book about Harvard, you know, I would find it annoying.

“I’m much more ambitious since I went to Harvard,” Mr. Douthat continued. “I’m still part of the culture. I mean, I work at The Atlantic Monthly in Washington, D.C., I’m friends with all my friends from Harvard, and they’re ambitious and I’m ambitious, and …. What could be more Harvard than writing a book about Harvard?”

A Pisher’s Privilege