Tufts Magazine logo Tufts seal
The online edition of Tuft's quarterly publication Contents Back Issues Subscribe Contact Us
Selected Features
Student Life
Magazine cover photo
Talk to Us
Send a Letter
Send a Classnote
Update your Records
Related Links
Tufts E-News link
Tufts Journal link
Tufts University link
link to Alumni Office
Tufts Career Network link
Support Tufts
Summer 2004

COVER STORY: A Political Pair

Philipp Tsipman (left) and Adam Blickstein (right)
Photo by Mark Ostow

Good friends and sparring partners find themselves on opposing sides of the political debate

Adam Blickstein and Philipp Tsipman have barely sat down at the long table in the Executive Room on the second floor of the Mayer Student Center before they start in on each other. “I’m not a huge fan of high school or collegiate politics,” says Blickstein, the outgoing head of the Tufts Democrats. “It’s more of a way for people to get their faces out there than to talk about substantive issues.”

“We talk about substantive issues,” protests Tsipman, outgoing president of the Tufts College Republicans.

Before Tsipman can continue, Blickstein overrides him. “Even this ‘academic integrity’ thing [the grading of students’ work without regard to their political philosophy], I think it’s more of a chance for people to promote an ideology than to promote a genuine predicament that students face.”

“Ouch, ouch!” cries Tsipman, for whom “academic integrity” was a signature issue on campus.

Blickstein knows this, of course. The two have been sparring on campus for the better part of four years, and the Democrat has used the issue to score a point right out of the box.

“When they told me we were meeting in the Executive Room, they said, ‘Don’t tear it apart,’” Blickstein later jokes. In reality, the two politicos are good friends, and—as they sit down for an informal debate on the eve of their graduation—they swear that they have a lot in common. Both are of Russian-Jewish descent, for instance, and both refer to themselves as moderates in their respective parties. Tsipman even says that the two “agree on a lot of things.” What those things might be, however, is up for debate, as is everything else between these two Jumbos.

In the views they express—on the Iraq War, cutting taxes, gay marriage, and military spending (to name just a few of the topics we cover)—they reflect the wider political divide that has split the country into Red and Blue, and made this the most contentious and partisan election year in memory.

A lot has happened in the four years since the two matriculated in 1999, from the Florida recount to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to the subsequent military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those events, they say, have scaled the ivory tower, and broken students somewhat out of the apathy that has famously gripped them for years. “It sounds really cliché, but what’s going on in [student] politics now goes back to September 11,” says Blickstein. “It really did change things.”

“It affected our generation a lot,” says Tsipman, adding, “It made people much more aware of what’s going on in the world and the importance of government and politics in their lives.”

“It was a binding agent,” says Blickstein, “but it was also a wedge.”

Both students remember the surreal experience of going to class after the planes hit the Twin Towers and seeing politics and patriotism percolate into the classroom. When Blickstein went to his Modernist Writers class, for instance, he says that he was surprised by the sudden pro-America views of his professor, who was “no fan of Bush” before the attacks.

As the momentum gathered for the Iraq effort, however, a split was clearly evident on campus, with the most vocal students and faculty protesting the war. “You had some professors still coming out of their experiences in the 1960s,” says Tsipman, who helped lead a rally to support the troops earlier this year, and says he has seen committed support for the military. “There is a tremendous support for bringing back ROTC, which was voted out by the faculty after the Vietnam War,” he says.

Blickstein is himself dismissive of some anti-war protesters, whom he sees as being more interested in grabbing headlines, but he agrees with their critique of Bush. “You see the same kind of rhetoric, the same massaging of information going on there as went on during the Vietnam War,” he says. “As young people, as Americans, we are obligated to look at the situation and make a decision for ourselves if what is going on there is right.”

From outward appearances, it’s hard to guess which of the two students is the Republican and which the Democrat. Tsipman shows up in a T-shirt, flannel shirt, and jeans, while Blickstein wears a sweater and khakis more befitting a political aide. The outfits reflect their personalities. Blickstein is always ready to pounce, frequently interrupting his colleague to correct a partisan statement. (“If you haven’t noticed, I like to talk a lot,” he acknowledges.) Tsipman, meanwhile, sits back in his seat, and chooses his moments and his words more carefully, almost visibly slowing down the conversation as he builds his arguments.

Tsipman was born in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and moved to Brookline, Massachusetts, with his family in 1995. His family was apolitical, he says, and he might have been too if it weren’t for a high school project he did on the discrimination against Jews in Russia after World War II that made him realize how events such as the Holocaust and the Cold War had affected his family. “The whole thing made quite an impression on me, just understanding how politics can affect people’s lives.”

Though he started out volunteering for environmental causes and Amnesty International, he became disillusioned by the attitudes of liberals around him, which he said “did not match reality.” After a teacher compared Ho Chi Minh to George Washington, he says, he began actively embracing more conservative viewpoints.

He didn’t find many of those at Tufts, where only six percent of students are Republicans, but he and his fellow conservatives have done their best to diversify the opinions on campus. “We’re in the papers more than the Dems,” he says proudly. Through the ongoing “academic integrity” campaign, the campus Republicans hope to institute a formal process by which students can appeal grades that they believe have been influenced by their professors’ political biases.

For Blickstein, the difficulty has not been in countering the prevailing view on campus, but in motivating the majority of liberal Democrats who are politically disengaged. Despite the increasing amount of political activism in the past four years, he says that the majority of students are still too preoccupied with their studies to care much about the larger world. Though the Democrats have 500 students on their mailing lists, they are lucky if they get 50 people to a meeting.

“If you are in the majority, there is no impetus to fight for your cause,” he says. “Students say, ‘What’s the point of being loud and vocal if the majority of the campus agrees with me?’”

Blickstein traces his own interests in politics back to his family, which unlike Tsipman’s, was actively political. His grandmother, a staunch Republican, worked for the governor of Pennsylvania. A cousin was deputy mayor of Philadelphia (and a Democrat). As for him, his own political epiphany came in fifth grade, while he was growing up in Rochester, New York, when he and a fellow student got into a debate about Ross Perot. “You’d like to think that it was some kind of profound political discussion,” he says, “but I pretty much just thought he [Perot] talked funny.” His political instincts were further honed in high school when, as secretary of his class, he engineered an impeachment of the class vice president after he had been caught drinking at a football game. “I knew if we kicked him out, I would ascend to the level of vice president,” he says, “so there was a bit of Machiavellian puppetry there.”

In addition to the war, Blickstein says that students have gotten energized by the current national battle over culture. “Iraq is definitely the preeminent issue,” he says, “but underneath that is the social war that’s going on that kind of crept up on us.” Tufts students have been active on the gay marriage debate at the State House as well as the abortion issue, fielding a large contingent at the Women’s March in Washington this spring.

Tsipman has also joined the larger debate on indecency while at Tufts. When he says a school-sponsored “safe-sex” tutorial crossed the line into lewdness, he and the college Republicans publicly complained to the dean, and made the local Medford paper. “This was the university putting this on at the Student Center. It was very explicit,” he says.

For Blickstein, such debates are almost behind the times, as he sees young people becoming increasingly liberal on social issues. “If you want to live in the 1950s, I think we should stay in the 1950s, but I think a lot of what America debates about—abortion, indecency on television—is anachronistic. You have this social tidal wave coming; this conservative backlash against homosexual rights and indecency is just trying to postpone the inevitable.”

Tsipman counters, “We’re not trying to go back to the ’50s, but we’re not trying to go back to the ’60s, either.” He claims polls say that many college students are actually more socially conservative than the last generation. “They see the excesses of their parents’ generation, the divorce rates, and the drugs,” he says, “and that’s not quite where they want to be themselves.”

Politics play a role in both students’ graduation plans. Tsipman, who has already formed the Tufts Republican Alumni Coalition, has landed a job as field director for Rod Jané’s Massachusetts state senate campaign. Blickstein, meanwhile, who’d like to get into political reporting, has landed a freelance position at CNN’s Washington, DC, bureau. And both are supporting their party’s choices in the coming election.

I ask them to give a stump speech for their respective candidates. Like good politicians-in-training, both of them go negative before touting their own man.

“If you look at what is going on in America right now, it’s going down the wrong road on a number of issues,” says Blickstein, “but the big ones are Iraq and economic stewardship. I think people are starting to lose trust in the Bush administration and their continued rhetoric that creates false realities, false perceptions, false ideas, and false hopes. The Kerry administration will do the exact opposite—listen to the people and create an economy that emphasizes a balanced budget and spends money where it needs to be spent.”

Not to be outdone, Tsipman counters, “I don’t think John Kerry presents the ability to lead the country in any direction. His record of changing his stances and decisions is going to come out very clearly, and the people of this country are going to see that this guy has no plan to lead us anywhere. The Bush administration showed strong leadership in the face of terrorism and on social and economic issues. They are providing a course for America to a better future for our generation and our children’s generation.”

He has barely finished when Blickstein jumps back in, saying, “That’s the same superficial argument that Bush gave last night. You’re really toeing the party line.”

Tsipman just smiles at him, shaking his head at his friend’s attempt to score a last point.

Says Blickstein, “I always have to get the last word.”

Michael Blanding is a senior writer at Boston Magazine.