After Mitch Daniels ’71 was arrested, indicted and convicted on charges of drug use as an undergraduate in May 1970, he said that he thought his aspiring political career was doomed. “Any goal I might have had for competing for public office were shot,” he told The Daily Princetonian in September 1988.
More than 20 years later, Daniels, now the governor of Indiana, has proved his own nay-saying wrong, emerging as a national political figure that many speculate will make a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. His four years at Princeton, most prominently marked by the legal problems of his junior year, reveal a complicated man that bridged seeming contradictions in both his academic and extracurricular lives.
Perhaps the most pivotal day of Daniels’ four years at Princeton was May 14, 1970 — the day of the drug arrest that Daniels thought would sully his political future. Officers found enough marijuana in his room to fill two size 12 shoe boxes, reports of the incident say. He and the other inhabitants of the room were also charged with possession of LSD and prescription drugs without a prescription. Daniels and his two roommates in 111 Cuyler Hall, Marc Stuart ’71 and Richard Stockton ’71, were arrested and, after plea bargaining, Daniels eventually escaped with a $350 fine for “maintaining a common nuisance.” The charges against Stockton were eventually dropped.
According to Stuart’s account of the incident, while he and Daniels were certainly guilty of possession of marijuana, it was the activities of a former roommate — Steve Harris ’71 — that gave the police an excuse to search their room.
Harris did not respond to a request for comment.
“Unbeknownst to us, [Harris] was hanging on campus and was coming back there and using the room when we’re not there and was involved with drugs much worse than pot,” Stuart said in an interview last week. “We considered ourselves innocent victims. We were just sitting there partying.”
Daniels said he did not agree with the assessment of innocence.
“I don’t make excuses for anything. Justice was served,” he said in an interview on Monday. “I had used marijuana and I was fined for that, and that was appropriate,” he explained.
Stockton stressed the cultural context in which the offense occurred.
“We just kind of did what college juniors did,” Stockton said. “It was very normal to what the college culture was,” he added, explaining that the culture of the country was gradually switching from alcohol to marijuana use.
Stuart also said that, despite the significant amount of drugs found in the room, the roommates never sold the drugs. “We had a rather large supply at a time when things were kind of dry around the campus so we may have helped a couple people out but there was never any sale or enterprise involved,” he explained.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post in 1989, Daniels echoed Stockton’s analysis, calling the drug incident an “unfortunate confluence of my wild oats period and America’s libertine apogee.”
“On my college campus, just as on most college campuses, marijuana was as easy to obtain as Budweiser beer and was viewed with equal complacency. For a time, I was a carefree consumer of both,” Daniels wrote.
Given the ubiquitous nature of marijuana on the Princeton campus in the 1960s and 1970s, Daniels and his roommates downplayed the larger significance of the arrest. Regardless, the experience clearly profoundly affected everyone involved.
“[Daniels] would probably agree that it was probably the worst day of his life,” Stuart said.
Daniels characterized the incident as a “lesson.”
“We were sort of swept up in the net ... I was fined for the accurate offense and I’ve learned from it,” he said.
Daniels may have learned as much outside the classroom as he did inside the classroom, partially due to his weak work ethic, as he joked about in the Class of 1971 15-year-book.
“[I] have worked 75 hours/week for 15 years now, which counting the four years at Princeton, brings the career average up to 40,” he wrote. Considering he made Dean’s List freshman and sophomore year, however, this comment may have been self-deprecating.
“I probably worked a little harder than I let on,” he said in the interview.
However, Daniels said, he regretted not applying himself fully. “I should have worked harder at it,” he said. “In the courses that interested me I did neither the teacher nor myself full justice.”
A Wilson School major, Daniels said that the school’s small policy conferences stood out in his recollection of his academic life at Princeton. His thesis, which was written under the guidance of then-Wilson School professor Michael Danielson, was titled “The Politics of Metropolitanization: City-County Consolidation in Indianapolis, Indiana.”
Despite his apparent academic success, his classmates said that Daniels spent more time at the poker table in Charter Club, of which he was a member, than in the library, though all noted the incredible mind masked underneath his humility.
“I think Mitch is still one of the brightest people I know,” said Frank Caine ’71, a close friend of Daniels. “It’s a practical smart,” he added.
Bill Engel ’71, who served in the leadership corps of College Republicans alongside Daniels, said that Daniels was “probably one of the smartest people I know.”
“He hides it fairly well in the sense that he is low-key and down to earth,” Engel noted. “He’s not a pretentious person at all. Sometimes people underestimate how smart he is,” he explained.
Several people said that Daniels’ political ambitions were apparent since his days as an undergraduate. In the 1971 edition of the Nassau Herald, Daniels wrote that he “eventually [hoped] to serve as a Political Consultant to acceptable candidates.”
In addition to College Republicans, Daniels was active in the campus antiwar movement, serving on the leadership committees of a number of organizations that supported draft opposition and an end to American military involvement in Vietnam. Although the Republican Party at the time generally disagreed with these positions, Engel said that he didn’t see Daniels’ political activism as a contradiction.
“Both of those things were products of the times,” Engel said. “They were both ways of being against the war in a constructive way. We were trying in a sense to still work through the system.”
Stuart said that he was initially surprised by Daniels’ political affiliations, considering the campus’ political leanings.
“When Mitch started all of his Republican associations, it kind of surprised me,” he said. “I assumed he was like most of the rest of us ... [but] a couple of years after we leave school, here is Mitch, working in the White House for Reagan” as the president’s chief political adviser.
Caine said, however, that his involvements spoke to a larger political philosophy.
“I think one of Mitch’s great attributes in the world of government and politics is that labels don’t matter much to him — issues matter to him. It doesn’t strike me as a Mitch Daniels conflict,” he said.
Daniels said that his political views evolved over his years at Princeton.
“I had an uncertain mooring back then. I don’t think that is all that unusual at a time like that. Eventually I came to whatever is a principled and consistent view of the world. I probably did dabble in things that might be seen as similar ... Of course, college is supposed to force you to have to look at different views,” Daniels explained.
His political beliefs were primarily framed by his summer and school-year political opportunities, Daniels said. During two college summers, Daniels interned in the office of then-mayor of Indianapolis, Richard Lugar, who is now Indiana’s senior senator. Because Daniels had the option to graduate in only seven semesters, he spent his sophomore fall at home in Indiana working on the Senate campaign of William Ruckelshaus '55.
“I would say that’s really where my views began to firm up,” Daniels said, noting that he valued “the direct experience with people who practice ... limited government but with an active and moderate sentiment.”
These political beliefs may find a receptive audience in the Republican presidential primary if Daniels decides to run as many analysts have predicted. Two weeks ago, Daniels delivered a well-received speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is traditionally a key engagement for potential Republican presidential candidates.
Daniels’ classmates said they do not envision any future political ambitions being affected by the drug incident from 40 years ago.
“It’s certainly ancient history by now. Mitch has made lots of public statements about not being involved with [the incident] for a long, long time,” Stuart said.
Daniels said that he is not in an appropriate place to say whether the drug incident will impact any political hopes.
“Since I became an elected officer, I have not suggested to any voter what they shouldn’t use as a criterion,” Daniels said.
Engel, meanwhile, said Daniels’ past is unlikely to raise unease among potential voters.
“He’s really competent and I would have no concern,” Engel said. “No one would take him to the cleaners. He’s too smart.”