Jack Ryan '81: The Conservative Idealist

By Rahul Sangwan
Posted October 01, 2004


An in-depth interview with the former Illinois Senatorial candidate

Scandals and politicians have been synonymous since the dawn of political history. One of the latest media hypes ruined the political future of Jack Ryan ’81, the former Republican Senatorial candidate from Illinois [The Party dumped him and selected Alan Keyes to take his place]. After graduating from Dartmouth, Mr. Ryan earned both a Law and a Business degree from Harvard University and went on to work for Goldman Sachs. After some time, Mr. Ryan left Goldman Sachs for a job teaching poor students in a Chicago school. Soon after declaring his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, the Chicago Tribune broke a story claiming that he conducted sexual activities with his wife at sex clubs. Mr. Ryan related to me the value of his time at Dartmouth, his lifelong devotion to idealism, and the eventual collapse of his political aspirations. A truly compassionate and idealistic man, my chat with Jack Ryan made me wonder what could have been.

*This interview has been transcribed word for word.

TDI: What compelled you to apply to and attend Dartmouth College?

JR: Well, I had a history of family that attended. My brother had gone there, my father had gone there, my uncle had gone there. So in many ways it was well known to me when I was growing up, and I visited the school and I liked it and everyone in my family seemed to like it. So part of it was a family history and part of it was on its own two feet it was a great school. For those two reasons, it was the right school for me.

TDI: Were you active on the campus?

JR: I played football my freshman year and part of my sophomore year. I also was a member of Fire and Skoal, the senior society. I was part of that group. I was a government major and did a lot of work in the government area, so I was pretty active in school there.

TDI: Were you politically active on campus?

JR: I think I ran for student body president one of the years. I didn’t win, but I did that one time. And other than that, I was really involved with the government department.

TDI: How did Dartmouth prepare you for Harvard and your future business career?

JR: When I got to graduate school, I was well prepared for the environment. So in all those levels it was really helpful, really constructive. I felt well prepared for both graduate schools. Also, the rigor of Dartmouth helps you no matter what you do. I actually went to a refugee camp after I left graduate school. This was during the early-mid 80s; this was ’81. And, at that time there was a civil war in Central America with the Sandinistas and the freedom fighters, the Nicaraguans, and El Salvador, Honduras - that entire area. There were a lot of immigrants coming up from Central America and crossing the border into Texas and applying for asylum because they were fleeing the communist aggression at that time.

So I went from Dartmouth to Harvard and then to this refugee camp. But, after the refugee camp, I went to Goldman Sachs, the investment banking firm, and I was there for almost 14 to 15 years. And at every one of those situations, whether it’s a refugee camp or Goldman Sachs or Harvard, I was well prepared. Dartmouth helped me be prepared for all of those wildly different situations.

TDI: Do you have any advice for Dartmouth students with political aspirations?

JR: Get in as many experiences as you can, because if you want to run for office you have to be able to understand and relate to people from every different walk of life. After I left Goldman Sachs, I worked for 3 years teaching in one of the worst neighborhoods of Chicago, on the South Side of Chicago at a Boys Catholic School called Hales Franciscan High School and all those experiences were very useful. If you want to go into politics, the best thing to do is get as many experiences in life as you can because you got to work with people and understand people from all different walks of life. You can do it without walking in their shoes, but you’ll do it better if you’ve worked in their shoes or lived in their neighborhoods.

TDI: What inspired you to leave a lucrative position at Goldman Sachs for teaching?

JR: Idealism. And this is something I talked about on the campaign trail. I don’t think we have enough idealism in America today. There’s a lot of sarcasm, and skepticism, and cynicism, and tearing the people or things down; that’s been going on in America for a while, and I think we have to return back to more of an idealistic world and realize that we only find fulfillment for our country and for ourselves if we live for things that are bigger than ourselves. And I know that’s idealistic, but I think we have to return to being a country of idealism. You know, when I was running in the Republican primary, I was talking about how to re-order society to help the poorest of the poor, the least fortunate, those who have been most left behind. And the consultants in Washington, D.C. would say, “Jack, you cannot win a Republican primary talking about how to help the poorest of the poor,” because in primaries, as you know if you like government, the most ideological people vote.

The people on the far left of the Democratic Party are the ones that most often vote in primaries. And in Republican primaries, the people who most often vote are those who are the most conservative. So in primaries, you usually find candidates trying to appeal to the most liberal or conservative wings of their party. So the advice I kept getting was, “Hey, you can’t run around the state of Illinois talking about how to help the poorest of the poor. That’s not going to endear you to the most conservative Republicans. They’re going to think that you’ll go to Washington and start spending money all over the place.” But I ignored that advice and won by a pretty big margin in the primary.

And it really was that I had two really big ideas: 1) assume that the voters are smart and 2) be sincere about everything I do. And one of my best ideals I think is that we have got to help the poorest of the poor. We’ve had 35 years of Great Society programs and things are really not better. You know, we started the great society in ’68 or so. Remember the Great Society programs?

TDI: Yes, under Johnson.

JR: It was Johnson, Humphrey and all those guys saying we have got to improve things. It was all an idealism of the 60s. And the idealism we had in the 60s was well placed and we really have to get back to that idealism, but the pragmatic aspect of it didn’t work. It really hasn’t. When I go to the South Side of Chicago, my high school was about a mile from the Robert Taylor homes. The Robert Taylor homes are some of the most notorious public housing programs in the country. And if you drive around the South Side near the Robert Taylor homes, and if you ask the residents on the South Side, “Over the last 35 years, have your streets been safer, are the jobs opportunities greater, are the schools better?” And you can shrug and say, “We tried and nothing worked so let’s just forget about it.” Or, you can be idealistic and say, “Hey the ideas were good in the 60s. The idea to help this people was good, let’s just figure out a different way to do it.”

So anyway, I gave you a very long answer to a very short question. But what motivated me to do it was pure and simple idealism.

TDI: So that’s why you threw in your hat for Senate candidacy. How do you feel about the state of the Republican Party in Illinois right now, with the Democrats holding nearly all of the political offices? Do you think the party is dead in the land of Lincoln?

JR: [Laughs] Right, and the Republican Party has had a difficult time. And, you probably know, I got fired. I was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate and I was basically fired. Are you aware of all the details? I can give them to you if you haven’t heard.

TDI: Yes, we’ve heard most of them.

JR: [Chuckle] Okay. Well, basically what happened was the Chicago Tribune, which was really unprecedented, sued me and my former wife to get access to our custody files. They had asked for, you know, one-year tax returns, I gave that to them; asked for two-year tax returns, I gave that to them; asked for three-year tax returns, I gave that to them. They asked for my divorce records, and I gave that to them. Then they were talking to friends and relatives, did all their research, and asked for my custody papers. And I said that’s off-limits. That’s just stuff about my son and the disputes that I and my former wife had about where my son should be, and we’re not going to give that to you.

And what was totally unprecedented in US politics is a paper suing to get access to sealed custody documents, sealed divorce records. No real precedent for that happening. Senator Kerry, for instance, has sealed divorce records and they’re not asking him to turn them over. After I dropped out of the race, people would say, “Hey, since Senator Kerry has sealed divorce records and they sued to have yours opened, in fairness, shouldn’t they sue to have Senator Kerry’s records opened?” And I said absolutely not. That’s the exact wrong thing to do. Just because it happened to me, it doesn’t mean that it should be the new standard. This is the new low for politics in America.

We’re not going to ask everyone who is divorced to turn over what was said between spouses in the divorce hearing to the press. It’s hard enough to get people to run for office as it is. If we now expect people to turn over their marriage counseling records, you know if a husband and wife go to marriage counseling because things aren’t going well, or turn over divorce records, we’ll get nobody to run for office. This is just a horrible precedent. So, I was saying that we should stop here, let me be the only person this has happened to. Don’t ask for Ted Kennedy’s. Don’t ask for John McCain’s. Don’t ask for Joe Lieberman’s. Just stop. This is not a good precedent for American society if you really want the best and brightest to run.

But, in those documents, there was an allegation, that in a very inappropriate place, that I had asked for the privileges of sex with my former wife. It was put in the front page of the paper and various members of the Republican Party said I ought to step down because that’s not appropriate behavior even though I denied it in the custody hearing. And, I thought, well the Republican Party doesn’t want me to be here. You know, I can’t really fight a two-front war. I can’t take them on and also take on the Democrats. So I stepped down.

TDI: On that note, soon after you declared your candidacy, the media depicted you as an excellent candidate, perhaps even a perfect candidate, one with an excellent education and honorable service to the education community in the state of Illinois. Do you think that such candidates are held to a higher standard by the media and by the opposition in general?

JR: Uh, hard…I know I was held to a higher standard. ‘Cause as I mentioned to you, apparently, and I don’t know this with a 100% certainty, but I’ve been saying this now for a month and a half and no one’s contradicted me, that there’s no other example of someone having to turn over their sealed divorce records. So this is obviously a higher standard than any one else in the history of the United States has been held to.

But I don’t know whether it’s because of my background they held me to a higher standard or not; I just don’t know. I really don’t know what motivated the Chicago Tribune to do that. They said it was a matter of principle. But if it were, it wouldn’t have only applied to me. I can’t look into their heads as to why they decided that I should be the one person who’s asked to do this. Don’t know.

I know I was held to a higher standard. I don’t know why I was, but I know I was. Just because no one else is being asked, even someone who’s running for president of the United States not being asked or sued to have their divorce records opened.

TDI: How do you feel about the media having the ability and in some circumstances an unfair ability to make or break a candidate? Do you feel this is beneficial to American politics in general?

JR: I think it’s a matter of two things. If it goes to the issues, of course they should report the issues pro or con. If they have a bias or not, that’s okay. You know, state your bias, but state it pro or con. Whether you’re the National Review or The New York Times, state your point of view and critique or applaud a person’s position, but explain the positions fairly, that’s fine. Or, if there’s behavior that the candidate engages in, in their personal life, that looks like it might affect how they do their job, that to me is also something that makes sense to look into. For instance, if a candidate uses drugs routinely. Even though it’s personal behavior, it might affect their job. It’d be important to know that.

But, if it goes to such things as what a husband and wife do or not do in the confines of marriage, that seems to go well beyond the pail. And what’s scary about this precedent, as I said before, it’s so hard to get people to run for office. It costs money, takes a lot of time, takes a lot of pressure, there’s not much upside from a money point of view. Obviously, there’s not much upside from a fame point of view – politicians are kind of viewed as someone below a used car salesman, for the most part. There’s not much in it from a prestige point of view. So if you add onto that by the way, we’re also going to inquire as to what you do in your personal life with respect to your wife or things like that, then I think they’d probably say I just can’t do this.

And the challenge that every democracy has is how do they get some of the best and brightest from each generation to decide to run for public office. It’s a real challenge for democracy and if we keep upping the ante, we’re going to find out that we don’t get very qualified people to do it and that’s going to hurt us all a lot. So, as a society we’ve got to decide how we’re going to reward people for running for public office.

And this goes back to the idea of idealism. We have got to once again applaud people who are idealistic, who work for the public good, and make it so that there’s some sort of-- if it’s not, if it can’t be a financial reward--some sort of benefit because, or else, no one’s going to do it.

TDI: How do you feel the media treated the Clinton scandal of the 90s?

JR: Hmm…hard to know. I can see if, each case is in some ways unique, but I can see if someone has a history of breaking important promises, that maybe that’s worthwhile for the public to know. And so I would take it if you made a promise to the spouse and to the world, that this is your spouse till death do you part, you’re going to be loyal to them forever and you break that promise you made to your spouse and everyone in the world. And you break it, that might be useful to know. But, in my case, of course, there was no allegation of having an affair or any kind of abuse or anything like that at all. So, with respect to the Clinton thing, hard for me to know about whether that should have been dwelt on or not. But, it was certainly a different situation than my situation so I don’t have a clear perspective on the Clinton situation.

TDI: When did you become involved with the political scene in Illinois and what inspired you to do so?

JR: I was a government major at Dartmouth and I went to law school with the knowledge that I’d like to be in public service at some point in my life, I think. And it’s always good to have the legal background, because law teaches you how society is and ought to be structured and how to work the rules of society, which are the laws. So very helpful to have that background. And then, when I came back to Chicago from Goldman Sachs in New York, I became a precinct captain in the Republican Party in Illinois. That’s probably around the mid to early 90s I guess.

Of course, I helped candidates raise money across the state, so I was always involved knocking on doors and trying to get people to support our candidates. So I was involved for a long time. But when I left Goldman Sachs to teach high school, I was pretty convinced that I would never run for public office because I was 40 to 41 years old. We had a Republican congressman in my district, who is very good, Mark Kirk, who’s still there. And then we had a US senator, a Republican named Peter Fitzgerald, who was in his first term. And, usually, candidates or senators don’t stop running just after one term.

So, I had though that my time had come and gone. And that’s the strange thing about politics: that you just never know if you’ll have a chance. You prepare yourself all year long if you want, all your life if you want, but it may be that there’s never an opportunity for you. So I had thought that my time had come and gone for getting involved in a more direct way by running for office. And I thought my contribution would be to teach high school on the South Side. Because if you are idealistic and you want to help others who are around you, one way to do it is through politics, but another way is to do it yourself and get involved in the South Side.

But then, out of the blue, our current US senator, Peter Fitzgerald, decides, about a term ago – March - that he’s not going to run. He’s had enough after a year. A complete surprise to everybody, no one anticipated that at all. And suddenly there’s an open field to run for office and most Republicans at that time in Illinois had, because of some other scandals in Illinois in the party, either just not wanted to run or couldn’t run. And so suddenly, there’s an open field for me to run. Now, seven other people felt the exact same way, so it’s an eight person primary. But, that’s how I was involved in politics for a long time and that’s how I got to run for the U.S. Senate.

TDI: Alan Keyes is trailing by 40 points to Barack Obama in some polls. Was it a mistake by the Republican Party to nominate Keyes for the Senate seat?

JR: I don’t know. This is what was strange. Every poll we had up until the last week had us trailing Obama by 8 points or so. Up until that week where things kind of went crazy. And we were doing a great job of raising money. And we were really going to challenge him on the ground that he though he stood on, which was he was running on the South Side of Chicago. And we would have had a fantastic debate, because he was saying he wanted to help the people on the South Side of Chicago and I said I do too and my life experience shows that I do and you’ve had your turn and things have not worked out. Give me a chance. ‘Cause he was state senator on the South Side for about 8 years, and he was kind of staying status quo on the Great Society programs. And my challenge was, hey, status quo, we’ve had that now for a long time and things aren’t working right. Just look around: things are not working.

It would have been a great debate. Then, they said hey Jack, this is kind of a “sex-scandal,” and I say that in quotes because it was the first sexless sex scandal in the history of the United States. There was no sex involved, the only person involved was my wife, so what’s the scandal [chuckle]. But anyways, when they said hey, maybe it’s better if you’re not there, I thought well they probably had someone waiting in the wings to step into my place.

So I figured there was more to their request then just kind of an unthought-out process. And so I thought they had someone ready to go right away. I thought if the good of the party is for me to step down, I’ll do what’s right for the party. It’s not about me, it’s about advancing the ideas. And, much to my surprise, and everybody else’s surprise, they had nobody. They kind of fished around for two months and couldn’t get anybody and they got Alan Keyes, who is not from Illinois - he’s from Maryland - but a very smart guy, very intelligent guy, a very articulate guy.

So I was just surprised that they didn’t have somebody. I thought it was well-thought-out. Not sure if that was a direct answer to your question or not, but I was surprised there wasn’t someone who was ready to take my place as soon as I stepped down, because I assumed they would have had somebody before they asked me to.

TDI: What are your thoughts on Barack Obama? The media has portrayed him as an unstoppable political force, the rising star for the Democratic Party – he gave the keynote speech at the convention. What are your thoughts on his ideals and his political future?

JR: In terms of his ideals, he spoke a lot about making sure that everybody has healthcare and a chance at a good job and a decent life. And I think everyone would agree with those ideals. The question is how does he want to accomplish those. As far as I can tell, the way he wants to accomplish those are the ways we’ve tried before, for the last 35 years, which has not worked. So in terms of what his objectives are, I think they are great objectives.

In terms of his means of doing that, more power to the central government is not going to work. We’ve tried it. It didn’t work. Europe has been doing it for a long time and they have unemployment rates across the EU at 8 or 10%. But what hasn’t been tried, which is what I think I was saying the entire time, is let’s not empower institutions, but let’s empower individuals. Rather than fund the school, fund the family and let them choose a school they want to go to. So, rather than give the school $10,000 per student give the family $10,000 per student. Rather than fund the federal housing project, fund the tenant and let the tenant choose where he or she wants to live.

This happened to me when I was teaching was at Hales Franciscan. One of the kids came up and said, “I didn’t do my homework because I didn’t have electricity last night.” It made me a little bit curious. So I called over to see, and what happened was not only did he not have electricity last night, he was not going to have electricity for two weeks. And I guarantee you that wouldn’t happen if the tenant had the money to move somewhere else. If you tell the landlord I’ll pay you no matter what, and fill up the housing project with as many people as you like, they’re going to do it and not care too much about the tenant. But if the tenant has the money, he can say, “Look, either get the electricity on tomorrow, or I’m going to go somewhere else, so you figure it out.”

In the capitalist economy, the only power that makes a difference is money. In the capitalist economy, money is the only thing that gives you power. So give money to the tenant, not to the federal housing project; give money to the family, not the school; give money to the worker, not the worker-training program. Let the worker go to Dartmouth or to BC or choose the local community college to get retrained if their job goes away. Don’t make them go to a federally managed, federally funded worker training program, which in the South Side of Chicago they call rigor mortis programs, because there’s no life in the room at all except for the occasional movement.

And so, that’s a long answer when you talk about Barack Obama. His objectives are good. I agree with those objectives. But his status quo approach to them is not good.

TDI: You have mentioned conservative ideals and a new approach to solving problems, one involving less government in areas such as education. President Bush’s first term has seen incredible increases in spending, particularly on domestic issues. What are your thoughts on the Bush Presidency straying from conservative ideals?

JR: You know, I used to say something about this in the primary too, and I was told not to talk about it in the primary. But I can’t help that it’s true. I’ve got to say it [laughs]. But yeah, on the spending side, we’ve had the greatest increases in spending since the Johnson and Nixon administrations, in the past 30 years. If it were going to solve the problems I just talked about, I would say okay, but it’s not. And so what we need is reform of the existing programs, reallocation of the resources along the way I described, rather than increasing the spending on programs we know haven’t been very effective.

And you’re right, there have been some of the biggest spending increases, and it’s not, I don’t think, going to be very successful in terms of what we need to make this country a freer place and a fairer place. It’s not going to makes us freer, it’s not going to make us fairer, and so it’s not, in my view, a good allocation of resources.

TDI: Where do you see yourself a few years from now? Back in teaching, perhaps, or the private sector?

JR: You know, that’s a great question. Here’s one of the dilemmas that you’re going to face and every person faces, at least a person of good heart and good spirit faces if your view of the world is you want to do good. Even if that is the conclusion, it really is not clear what one ought to do. I’ll give you an example.

My last year at Hales, the last semester at Hales Franciscan high school, they were saying this before it looked like Fitzgerald was stepping down, towards the end of the 2003 school year I guess. They were paying me $20,000 a year at Hales. And before, I was an investment banker. And you know when you’re an investment banker, you can make lots of money if you do a good job of it--seven figures. This is going to sound kind of like Adam Smith. Do they still have Government 5 and Government 6 at Dartmouth?

TDI: Yes.

JR: Well, in Govy 5, you’ll cover Adam Smith, and Adam Smith would talk about that in the Wealth of Nations, people are encouraged to be moved to their highest and best use and that makes everyone better off. So what Hales was saying was kind of along those lines, very interesting: “You know Jack, we love your teaching English here, and teaching law and the things you’re teaching here, and we pay you $20,000 a year, and we’re thrilled about that. But having said that, you’re a very good teacher, but we could probably get some good teachers, who are almost as good as you.” They would say this in a very politically correct way.

“We could probably get like five of them for $125,000 and if you went back to Goldman Sachs and worked and they paid you a million dollars and you gave half to us, we could probably hire 3 or 4 guys kind of like you and then save $300,000 for the endowment.” And so this goes back to Adam Smith: what’s your highest and best use. Is it better to actually go teach on the South Side or is it better to go back and to work and if you can discipline yourself, actually take half of your money every year and send it off to Hales Franciscan High School.

And now I’m confronted with that issue again. I applied too late to be a teacher there in the fall, but now I’m a substitute teacher at Hales Franciscan. But I’m going to try to teach there again in the Spring. But it’s not clear. That’s another long answer to your short question. But it’s not clear what I’m going to do yet because I’m trying to figure out hey, what’s the best thing to do. Even if the objective is clear, it’s not always clear what the means are. And maybe I should go back into the business, I’m trying to figure that all out now.

TDI: Well, that’s really everything I had to ask. Is there anything else you would like to add for the Dartmouth Community?

JR: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I have much other to add other than to encourage you and your students to be idealistic. We’ve got to kind of walk my generation back and your generation back from being cynical and skeptical and tearing things down and putting people down and this attitude that nothing is really better than anything else, this nihilistic view of the world. And it’s not going to improve things. We’ve got to become more idealistic and live for things bigger than ourselves and ideas bigger than ourselves. And there are some things worth sacrificing for and taking risk for, things like freedom and liberty and safety of our children and things like that. So, I just encourage the Independent to keep being idealistic.

TDI: Well, we’ll certainly try. We appreciate you giving us your time and wish you the best of luck in the future.

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Copyright 2005 The Dartmouth Independent
The opinions printed within are those of the authors and do not represent those of Dartmouth College.