Open to Debate
Pursuit of the Truth Preoccupies Hoover Institution Scholar Peter Berkowitz ’81
Peter Berkowitz ’81, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has accumulated advanced degrees with the frequency of a fashionista who must have the season’s new line. A master’s degree in philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A law degree from Yale. A Ph.D. in political science from Yale. It’s an intellectual’s resumé, and it’s easy to imagine Berkowitz as a young child in Deerfield, Ill., curled over a challenging book. But as he tells it, it was his devotion to another object—the tennis racquet—which may have launched his career as a scholar.
“I forgot to send my application in on time,” he says of applying to Swarthmore. “A few days after the deadline, I called the tennis coach, Bill Cullen, and I’m sure it’s thanks to him that my application was even considered.”
It was late summer, and Berkowitz, who spends most of the year in Washington, D.C., where the Hoover Institution maintains a small office, was in Palo Alto. He no longer plays as much tennis (“too many injuries” he says), but he often plays golf—on the same course as fellow Hoover Fellow Condoleezza Rice, who recently was tapped to become one of the two first female members of Augusta National Golf Club.
As a senior fellow, Berkowitz has the security of a tenured professor without the teaching obligations, but the occasional golf round aside, he’s a prolific writer on a wide array of subjects—national security, constitutionalism, Israel. (At Hoover, he leads task forces on “national security and law” and on “virtues of a free society.”) Also, in both academic publications and The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed pages, he’s lamented the decline of liberal education and the increasing politicization of college classrooms. It’s a conservative critique, which isn’t surprising since Berkowitz’s employer, the Hoover Institution, is generally considered a conservative (or neo-conservative) think tank with heavy libertarian leanings. But what is surprising is that many of Berkowitz’s early and profound intellectual influences were liberal professors at Swarthmore. “Many of my thoughts about liberal education were formed at Swarthmore under professors including Kenneth Sharpe, James Kurth and Richard Schuldenfrei, and Barry Schwartz—professors who, to one degree or another, were men of the left,” he says.
Though his parents are liberal Democrats, politics didn’t greatly interest Berkowitz in adolescence (but tennis did). When he arrived on campus, Swarthmore’s “Kremlin on the Crum” radical days were just a memory, Berkowitz says. “But we still were undoubtedly a left-wing campus.” Still, he had little interest in day-to-day politics—“and I don’t say that with pride,” he adds. Instead, in the classroom he was captivated by larger intellectual arguments, framed by the writings of Plato, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Locke, Hegel and others. “It was eye opening to see that the professors, who knew much more than we did, also were struggling with these questions,” he says.
One episode, in particular, left a lasting impression on him. A member of the economics department—Berkowitz can’t remember which one—challenged Sharpe, a political scientist, to a debate: free market economics versus Marxist economics, in which Sharpe would defend the latter. “And I remember Sharpe explaining to our seminar why he turned it down,” Berkowitz says. “Sharpe told the students who were trying to organize the debate that he wouldn’t debate for an evening, but he’d happily agree to a series of debates, perhaps several times a week for several weeks. Sharpe explained to us that in an hour and a half, you can barely begin to discuss the topic in a responsible way.” For Berkowitz, this is the point of scholastic inquiry—not to score easy political points but to pursue truth no matter how tortuous the process and no matter how unresolved the answer.
It’s an approach Berkowitz uses during his own teachings—not at Stanford, but during a three-week intensive course on political theory in Jerusalem for Israeli undergraduates. “People consider me a conservative, and there are good reasons for that, but I wouldn’t think of teaching modern political philosophy without including a serious examination of Marx,” he says.
Berkowitz, who is Jewish but whose upbringing was fairly secular, first visited Israel after college. Again, tennis provided the entree. Michael Mullan, who succeeded Cullen as the men’s tennis coach, connected Berkowitz with a job teaching on a kibbutz. It was there, Berkowitz says, where he began thinking more about contemporary political issues. The region was in turmoil—during his stay Israel had just invaded Lebanon to drive out the Palestinian Liberation Organization. “I saw that I had taken for granted what we had in the United States, and I began to appreciate that America’s freedom, prosperity, and toleration were remarkable achievements,” Berkowitz says.
He returned to pursue a law degree and Ph.D. in political science at Yale and then taught political theory at Harvard. When he was denied tenure, he unsuccessfully sued Harvard, arguing that he had been sabotaged by backroom dealings among fellow academics, including Harvard’s then-president. Later, Berkowitz taught law at George Mason University. A little over 10 years ago, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution launched its Washington, D.C., office and the journal Policy Review. “Shortly thereafter, I became a research fellow at Hoover, working there on a part-time basis,” Berkowitz says. Five years ago, after Hoover conducted a national review of his scholarly credentials, he became a full-time senior fellow.
“A typical day for me resembles my days as a university professor,” says Berkowitz, who is single. “Whether I’m in Washington, Palo Alto, Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem, I like to devote the full morning to writing, and in the afternoon attend to my other obligations. The difference is that these days I only teach five or six weeks a year. When I’m in Washington, I’ll usually have lunch with a journalist, think-tank scholar, or [congressional] staffer—someone writing about or involved in politics. And in the afternoon, I’ll be in the DuPont Circle office, reading and doing administrative work.”
Among his recent writings are two pieces on the Constitution in Policy Review. In one, a June review of Jack M. Balkin’s Living Originalism, Berkowitz faults Balkin’s “reading of the commerce clause, which turns the Constitution into a charter of unenumerated and virtually limitless powers, makes nonsense of Madison’s assurances that the commerce clause is consistent with the Constitution’s assignment of few and defined powers to the federal government.”
Berkowitz also often writes about national security. And in the course of a review of a book on the Arab Spring, he takes a couple of swipes at President Obama. The president “seems to subscribe to the view common among progressive intellectuals that the fundamental source of instability in the Middle East is the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians—rather than, say, Iran’s exporting of Islamic revolution and drive to dominate the region through acquisition of nuclear weapons,” he writes.
He also faults the withdrawal of troops from Iraq: “Given the fragility of the government left behind in Baghdad, the porous border between Iraq and Iran, and Iran’s determination to stir up trouble and perhaps even foment a Shiite takeover, there is good reason to worry that the president has set back America’s long-term interests in a stable and democratic Iraq.”
Berkowitz is not formally aligned with a particular party. He did serve as a senior consultant to George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics. And he was on the foreign policy advisory team for Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid. But he’s a registered Independent. “I haven’t been involved in this presidential campaign at all,” he says.
And while he’s long graduated from Swarthmore, Berkowitz retains close ties to classmates and professors. Berkowitz’s friend Ronald Dworkin ’81, a Baltimore doctor, hosts a dinner for their former professor Kurth, once or twice each year. “We spend the better part of a weekend together, talking about all things under the sun,” Berkowitz says. “I consider it a great privilege.”