Alumni Ian Benjamin, Kyle McNally, and Omar Eltorai (all ‘08), were in a state of war in high school.
They battled in their classes, electives, lunches and free periods. They brought their family into their arguments, and, as Benjamin put it, “it could get ugly.”
Three friends—one liberal, one strongly conservative and the other moderate. Politically, they were quintessentially incompatible.
And with such differing views, what better way to handle it than through argument?
Issues such as the War on Terror, the environment, fiscal policy and social rights were regularly debated.
Yet despite their obvious political divide, the three could not have been more united as friends.
“Kyle would usually instigate it,” Benjamin said. “He would interrupt me doing homework, and we would eventually just be cracking up.
“My parents would always say, ‘How can you be best friends with someone whose views are so different from yours?’”
Four years later, the friends have taken radically different paths—their careers have no link to one another’s, and they live on opposite sides of the country and the world.
And their political views? Well, they might as well be on separate planets.
McNally was the conservative of the group from the beginning—though looking back, he describes himself more as “apolitical” in high school.
“I supported the wars and understood why we were fighting, but besides that I wasn’t too attuned to politics,” McNally said.
But that didn’t stop him from arguing with Benjamin or Eltorai nearly every day..
“We always had a good time arguing about politics—but I think that’s how it should be,” McNally said.
“Kyle was always the jokester,” history teacher Sue Nellis said. “Those three would get together, and they would just laugh and laugh about everything.”
In high school, McNally used his wit to draw cartoons for the Octagon, which won him a second place in the Columbia Scholastic Press Association Gold Circle competition.
He acted as well, playing the lead role of a sarcastic and witty grandfather in a production of “You Can’t Take it With You” his freshman year.
“Kyle was an amazing actor,” Octagon adviser Patricia Fels said. “He was incredibly convincing, even though he was only 14 years old at the time.”
Though McNally strongly supported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his next move was closer to the war front than his friends, or teachers, ever saw coming.
Upon graduating, he went on to liberal UC Santa Cruz, but withdrew after only two quarters to join the Marine Corps.
“(McNally) had obvious drawing talent, but he never exerted himself enough to live up to what he might have been. For example, when his cartoon won second place, the comment said it would have won first place if it had just been a little more polished,” Fels said.
“You don’t think of that kind of person becoming a Marine.”
“I never saw him going to war—who he was as a person didn’t match that,” he said. “There was a conflict between state between his persona and what he claimed his political perspectives were.”
And Nellis saw McNally’s persona change drastically after returning home from the Marine Corp.
“I’ll never forget how grown-up Kyle seemed when he got back from boot camp. I was shocked,” she said.
But McNally said joining the Marines was always a goal of his, one that, unlike his political views, he kept quiet about..
McNally’s father also served, spending a year in the Merchant Marines after high school.
Working as a combat correspondent for the Marines, however, has caused McNally’s high-school views to not so much evolve as strengthen, he said.
He was especially influenced by his nine months in Afghanistan.
“Being there and what I saw showed me that there’s a very real threat out there,” he said.
While in high school, McNally felt his parents—staunch Republicans who regularly worked in conservative campaigns—affected him,but only to a degree.
“I lived in their house, so I obviously picked up on some stuff from them,” McNally said. “But I figured things out on my own.”
He now describes himself as libertarian—he opposes large government and any restrictions on individual freedoms.
“America has always been a place that celebrates individuality, and you should basically be able to do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt other people,” he said.
McNally also believes in a flat tax rate, meaning that all citizens would pay the same percentage in taxes regardless of income.
And he supports both less government involvement in health care and reform of the welfare system.
“The government doesn’t have to be responsible for everyone,” McNally said. “Welfare is important, but a lot of people can take care of themselves.”
Social Security and Medicare, however, are two areas where he doesn’t support large cuts. When it comes to national defense, McNally says we should think small—though he added that his views are his alone and not those of the Marine Corps.
“We should still maintain our global watch, but we need to leave a smaller footprint,” he said. “We can support other countries but we shouldn’t put boots on the ground unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Benjamin was McNally’s chief opponent in high-school arguments.
“I don’t know why we wasted our time trying to change each other’s views because it was truly hopeless—and Kyle always ended it with ‘But you’re still wrong,’” Benjamin said.
But like McNally, Benjamin made a different impression outside the political arena. He wrote reviews for the Octagon on topics like “Chick flicks for guys.”
“Ian always seemed laid-back and funny in high school,” Fels said. “He was a very dapper dresser, too..”
“His dad was in a rock band when Ian was in high school,” Nellis said. “He had a wild side and you could see some of that in Ian.”
In high school, Benjamin labeled himself as a strong liberal—and, four years later with a B.S. in physiological science from UCLA, nothing has changed.
He supports gay marriage, less involvement overseas and strong regulations on pollution, climate change and corporate misconduct.
At UCLA he felt the pain of state budget cuts and believes that maintaining adequate funding for public schools and universities is of “paramount importance.”
Like McNally, Benjamin feels his liberal parents, although a definite presence in his political identity, set more of a foundation for his opinions rather than the opinions themselves.
“When I think about certain issues—for example, the War in Iraq—I try to distance myself from any emotional attachment and think about whether it is objectively logical, and morally correct,” he said.
Benjamin now works in a cardiovascular research lab at his alma mater’s School of Public Health.
And, just like McNally, he feels that being out in the real world has only solidified his political views.
“I’m even more secure in my beliefs now,” Benjamin said. “It was a suspicion then, but now I’m sure.”
Eltorai describes himself as “purple” in high school—neither very liberal nor very conservative.
“I would choose my fights (in high school), but as I got older, I would side more with Kyle,” he said.
And as he got older, he found himself siding increasingly with the Republican Party, particularly when it came to reining in government spending and balancing the budget.
“I was more moderate early in life,” Eltorai said. “But after college I started to be more conservative.”
Like Benjamin and McNally, Eltorai worked on the Octagon, eventually rising to be editor-in-chief, which didn’t surprise Fels.
“Omar was calm, determined and ambitious about getting the things he wanted,” Fels said. “He would set a goal for himself, and I had no doubt that he would achieve it.”
Fels describes Eltorai as strongly opinionated and unafraid to stand by his beliefs.
“He had a wry sense of humor, though, and he was always gentle and polite to everyone,” Fels said.
Eltorai attended American University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in economics and finance.
“It was a very liberal campus, but my peers never had the same level of pull that my parents had,” Eltorai said. “I was exposed to more arguments with my majors, and I started to weigh the measurable costs over what the social cost was.”
Eltorai describes himself as socially liberal, supporting gay marriage and abortion rights, but fairly conservative on fiscal and foreign policy issues. However, he has nothing but disdain for the far right.
“The tea party is garbage. It’s a fad and a bad one at that,” he said.
Unlike his friends, Eltorai is still unsure whom he will vote for.
“It’s a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils,” he said, adding that he disagrees with Romney’s ideas on resolving conflict in the Middle East but feels that Romney would be more fiscally responsible.
Currently Eltorai works at an investment management firm in Charlotte, N.C., advising clients on investment strategies and opportunities.
So what of the trio now? The three friends say they haven’t had one of their political arguments since high school. And each admits they haven’t stayed in touch.
But, as McNally points out, their arguments meant more in the grand scheme of politics than they knew at the time.
“Nobody is willing to discuss anything or consider the beliefs of the other side,” McNally said. “Today it feels like it’s one side against the other and there’s no room for compromise.
“With us, it wasn’t like that.”
**Photos from May 2008. Taken by Tom Wroten