Deep Dives Investigations Magazine

A Jesus Fish out of Water

Our investigation, in collaboration with the Guardian, looks back at the controversial politician’s year in south-west London.

Before Josh Hawley became known for leading the attempt to overturn the 2020 election in the US Congress, he taught at St Paul’s, the elite British school for boys where he spent a year working, and where he was remembered by staff and pupils as an aloof, right-wing political obsessive who made himself popcorn to watch the US invasion of Iraq.

The Republican senator from Missouri has been the target of ire for millions of Americans since he became the first senator to say he would object to the election results. 146 Republicans joined the lawmaker in seeking to block votes from Pennsylvania and Arizona from being counted, an extraordinary manoeuvre that was seen as stoking the flames of a pro-Trump mob who attacked the US Capitol.

Before the assault, Hawley was photographed walking past the crowd and raising his fist in salute to them.

While Hawley has painted himself as a man of the ‘American heartland’, and has expressed contempt for what he says is the US’s liberal ‘elite’, the graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School spent a year in Barnes in 2002, at top all-boys private school St Paul’s.

An examination of his time there has found that Hawley was not the first choice to serve as a ‘Colet Fellow’ at the prestigious school. But he persuaded the interview board with what some called his intellectual rigour and drive.

Hawley taught A-Level politics jointly with Rob Jones, a left-wing former policeman who was described fondly when he left in the school magazine as ‘able to create a fearsome reputation, but is also worshipped by his students. There cannot be many who have their own Facebook appreciation society.’

The teaching style of the pair, former pupils said, was combative. It was apparent that Jones was on the left and Hawley on the right. ‘Rob had him take some lessons, then he would sit with the boys and throw grenades every so often,’ said one.

Jack, a former student who is himself now a teacher, explained further: ‘Jones and Hawley would sit on opposite sides of the classroom. We’d get these photocopies of, you know, excerpts from Nietzsche or Marx or John Locke, for ideologies, given them in advance and told to highlight them. Then it was a debate, a discussion, about what conservatives think about society, is nationalism inherently aggressive, and so on and so on.’

‘Fairly quickly it was known… I don’t know if it was from Jones talking to his son, but it was oh, you know, Hawley, he’s the conservative one, he’s the right-wing guy. But then he didn’t hide it in discussions. He was forthright about defending his views even at that stage.’

The ex-pupil added that Hawley was clearly highly intelligent. ‘I’m sad to see some of the things he’s saying now, the people he’s aligning with, and the simplistic glib phrases he’s coming out with, but he’s a serious thinker and he was seriously impressive even back then. And everyone could see it. I think that’s why Jones was happy for him to take such a big load of the teaching, as it was apparent that this was a very impressive young person,’ he said.

Hawley, who left comments on pupils’ essays in green ink, ‘could be quite tough at some points’, according to Jack, who ex­pounded on Hawley’s marking technique.

‘After writing all over the essays, there’s a blurb at the end, and it starts: “Jack, your essay plan was very good, you should have followed it.” So he sort of cut to the chase. But, you know, it was a great incentive to work hard and try and do better and see, gosh, would I be capable of writing an essay that wouldn’t be scrawled all over or, you know, would at least get some positive feedback. So yeah, that was the first time at St Paul’s when I really loved the education. And I did very well in A-Level politics because I was so, what’s the word – exhilarated by the lessons. That inspired me to keep going with politics, and he had a lot to do with that.’

But not all of Hawley’s former pupils were as kind. ‘He ran my Oxbridge preparation classes. He’s useless, I didn’t get in,’ remarked one graduate of Durham University.

The reading material set by the young American teacher spoke to his Christian faith, with the devout Hawley setting Paul’s letter to the Romans as Oxbridge reading. and ‘talking about how amazing Paul’s theology was’ (though the then chaplain told us he could not recall Hawley at all). In politics, Hawley also went beyond the syllabus to teach John Rawls, Michael Sandel, John Locke, Thomas Paine and classic works of American democracy.

The prevailing impression left by Hawley on one pupil is that of a politics wonk. ‘He was really, really into American political logistics. It was around the time of the 2004 election, or run-up to it, and he had his postal voting pack with him and was so proud and protective of it,’ he said.

Such was his tidiness – or ‘creepily American’ appearance – that the best nickname his pupils could devise was ‘The All-American Hero’.

‘He looked like somebody who’s going to be President. If you imagined what a 22-year-old would look like before they became President, he was the figure. Can’t typecast better than that,’ added one former charge.

But what did his colleagues make of him? In a now-deleted tweet, Mike Sacks, a former Colet Fellow who arrived two years after Hawley, said that a teacher asked him: ‘You’re not a fascist like that Joshua Hawley, are you?’

Another described him as ‘too right-wing and Christian for my sensibilities’, and it seems Hawley did little to help himself in becoming friendly with the staff.

‘He made a point of keeping himself aloof. My take on it is that he had an attitude that he was better, and that any sort of mingling and socialising was just beneath him, and not something he’d engage in. There were lots of opportunities to spend time together, either in the staff room or at drinks down at the pub – and he doesn’t drink, or he didn’t drink, let me put it that way. He’d never once go to the pub. Not once.’

Another former teacher, who says Hawley took an instant dislike to him, recalls an unfriendly Sunday morning encounter with Hawley at a bus stop, where he stayed wordless for twenty minutes as Hawley clutched a huge Bible full of coloured ribbons to mark bits of scripture, off to an evangelical gathering.

Several years after leaving St Paul’s, Hawley had dinner with a former head of department and presented him with a copy of his new Teddy Roosevelt biography, leading someone to point out that ‘Josh has clearly been quite a fan of populist politics for a while.’

With few social appearances, staff actually recall little of Hawley, though one particular incident seems striking.

‘The only anecdote I remember about him in the staff room is he made himself popcorn to watch the news coverage of the Iraq invasion. You know, shock and awe. […] Holding forth about how this is a good military move, and it’s a show of American strength. He was very hawkish,’ a teacher said.

‘The staff room is, I think, a bit more liberal – he really felt they weren’t quite as aligned with some of his morals. This kind of came across as him making his mark – maybe he was hamming it up a bit to make his point. But it’s not like popcorn was usual in the staff room. We are, after all, in London – we have tea and coffee, not exactly popcorn. He was quite excited about that kind of military endeavour. That was a funny, bizarre kind of moment,’ the teacher added.

Hawley’s connections to St Paul’s persisted after he left, with him attending a dinner celebrating the school’s 500th anniversary on 4 April 2009 at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and posing for a photograph with other former Colet Fellows and the then High Master, Dr Martin Stephen.

But the events surrounding the attack on the Capitol on 6 January have changed St Paul’s School’s attitude to their former employee.

A spokesperson for the school said: ‘Like people the world over, St Paul’s has been shocked by the scenes taking place in America and those resisting the delivery of the legitimate election process. Our records show Josh Hawley came over from the United States for ten months as a postgraduate intern 18 years ago. We are relieved that democratic process is now prevailing in the US Capitol.’

It seems that this particular post-graduate intern certainly left his mark in Barnes.

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