In the four years since he made national headlines for his infamous marathon speech against Obamacare, Senator Ted Cruz has become a household name—first as an ambitious young senator, then as a presidential candidate.
But 25 years ago, Cruz was an undergraduate student at Princeton. When he wasn’t winning debate championships or provoking the ire of his freshman-year roommate, he was getting to know one of the nation’s leading conservative academics, the professor Robert George.
George was Cruz’s constitutional-law professor and his thesis adviser. Cruz credits George with pushing him to not only think about the Constitution more deeply, but to constantly revisit his own beliefs. In the years since they were student and teacher, the two have stayed close. On the presidential campaign trail, Cruz regularly turned to George for advice.
For The Atlantic’s series “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with Cruz and George about their mentor-mentee relationship. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: How is the Ted Cruz that you know today different from the Ted Cruz that you knew when he was a student?
Robert George: A 20-year-old man is not going to have the maturity of a 45-year-old man. I’m a wine guy. If you know anything about wine, you know a great red Bordeaux in the cask, before it’s ever been put in the bottle. That wine isn’t ready to drink yet. It’s not going to have the nuance, the depth, the sophistication. But boy, 20 years down the line, that’s when the payoff comes. It’s similar here.
The young Ted was more of a libertarian—but so are most kids. Then they get older. And they realize, “Gee, libertarianism would be fine in a world of mature adults with high educations, who have their passions under control and aren’t tempted to do things that will get them addicted to drugs.” But that’s not our world.
Kitchener: How important was it for you to find a like-minded, conservative thinker to look up to during college? Was it difficult?
Ted Cruz: If you were a person on the left, you had a multitude of mentors available on the faculty. If you were a conservative, you didn’t have nearly as many. One year when I was a student, Robbie was on sabbatical. The visiting professor who filled in for him was also conservative, and Princeton gave him the same telephone extension as Robbie. He joked that the university figured, “Ah, we’ve got one conservative, just dial the same number, they’ll tell you the same ridiculous right-wing theory, and then you can dismiss it.”
Kitchener: You were already a well-respected professor by the time Senator Cruz arrived at Princeton. How did he manage to catch your attention?
George: Ted took a number of my classes. And once I had him in class, he stood out immediately.
George: He was someone who was always pushing up against the conventional elites on campus. At institutions like Princeton, there are always a set of orthodoxies. Ted was never shy about expressing opposition to those orthodoxies.
I was also struck by how deeply Ted had thought about the Constitution. Even before I taught him, he had clearly gotten beyond secondary-source accounts of the document. He himself had read it through and studied its history. He was committed to the idea that the Constitution actually means what it says.
Kitchener: What was he like with other students?
George: He loved to argue. But he wasn’t a bully. I’ve had kids come in knowing a lot more than the other students, and use that knowledge to bully others. Ted never did that.
Kitchener: Perhaps that’s why he was on the debate team?
George: I actually tried to discourage Ted from doing debate. Debate is great for sharpening the mind, but I worry that really skilled debaters might internalize the idea that the point of discussion and debate is victory, rather than truth. In debate, if you encounter a compelling counterargument, you just try to find a way around it. But you should argue for truth, not for victory. Really good debaters run the risk of ignoring valid counterarguments, and Ted was a really good debater.
Kitchener: Senator Cruz, when you think back on your time at school with Professor George, what memory sticks out most?
Cruz: When Robbie returned my junior independent research paper, the front corner was folded over. He had written on the flap, “C+.” And I remember holding the paper with white knuckles, and the abject terror of a 19-year-old who was convinced his whole life was over. And then I flipped the corner over, and he had written, “Just kidding, A.” And I believe my response was, “Professor George, you are an evil, evil man.”
George: We have had something of a teasing relationship from very early days. Ted obviously was an extremely good student. I’m pretty sure he very rarely got a grade lower than an A-. But I also knew he was very ambitious. I thought Ted needed to have the experience that other mere mortals have, of not being a success every time.
Kitchener: What sets Professor George apart from other mentors you’ve had?
Cruz: Professor George is scrupulously fair. He’s not someone who is domineering with his beliefs; rather he engages in the Socratic method. And whatever your beliefs, he challenges them. He helps teach you how to think, which is really the ultimate task of the university. Like most Princeton students, I was young and not fully formed, and I needed to have my presuppositions challenged.
Kitchener: What happens when the two of you disagree on an issue?
George: Frederick the Great had a line he would always use when people would ask him about free speech. It went something like, “My people and I have an understanding—they say what they want, and I do what I want.” Ted has an understanding with me. I’ll say what I want, and he’ll listen, but he’ll do what he wants. I never ask anybody to do anything more than permit me to state my view and state my reasons for it—if those reasons are persuasive to them, great. If not, they’re on their own.
Kitchener: Is that the guiding principle for your mentorship?
George: I am there to help shape my student’s character, not just sharpen his intellect and analytical skills. Professors are supposed to do that, too, but that’s not the whole picture. As a mentor, I’ve been given a trusteeship of my students’ moral character, along with their intellectual ability.
Kitchener: What is your relationship with Professor George like now?
Cruz: He is someone whose counsel I value greatly, and we speak regularly. When I was running for Senate, Professor George wrote a Facebook post in support of my campaign, which I didn’t expect. He is someone who I respect, and I would even say revere. So to have him write a post on Facebook, saying “my former student is running for Senate,” saying he thought I would make a fine senator—that meant a great deal.
George: I endorsed him in the last presidential campaign—and not just because he was my student. I thought he would make a great president. I’m not surprised he didn’t win the nomination though. He’s very young, and the competition was very fierce, laying aside the guy who won.
Kitchener: Professor George, why do you devote so much of your time to mentorship?
George: When I’m working with students like Ted, I always think, “This is what my mentors in college and graduate school did for me.” And since you’re never going to be able to repay them in kind, you repay them by mentoring the next generation. I fantasize that someday people like Ted will be doing the same thing for young people. When they’re 50, they’ll meet some 19-year-old, and they’ll pass along to them what was passed along through me.