Arriving on the campus of the University of Georgia in the fall of 1979, Reed became entranced with right-wing political activism and street theater after witnessing a vitriolic protest in response to the hostage crisis in Iran, where participants chanted “nuke ‘em ‘til they glow,” demanding that Iranian students in the US quit “taking our jobs and go home.”
Reed soon began to attend College Republican meetings on campus but was nonplussed by the organization’s apparent moderation. Setting out to counter it, Reed quickly created a network of supporters within the organization and got himself elected president, a position from which he then became the center of ultra-conservative activism on campus. With the College Republicans behind him, Reed threw himself into campus, local and national politics; holding “mock elections” and, at one point, even convincing the University Union to co-sponsor a supposedly nonpartisan event during which Reed and others passed out flyers that made it appear as if the Union was attacking a Democratic senate candidate for failing to appear. Reed eventually apologized to the Union for the “error,” but as Nina Easton explained in her book Gang of Five, “after-the-fact apologies and explanations issued too late to alter the victory that Ralph craved, would become a hallmark of his career – from College Republican shenanigans in the 1980s to the Christian Coalition’s stealth campaigns and biased portrayals of opponent’s political records in the 1990s.” As one of Reed’s political allies would say years later, “[Reed] is completely Machiavellian. He will do anything to win.”
In college, Reed was also a columnist for the school newspaper The Red and Black, but was fired after writing a column attacking Mohandas Gandhi as a man who “urged the entire Jewish race to commit collective suicide … and spent his mornings rolling around in bed with naked teen-age girls.” It was not for spouting these outrageous views that Reed was fired, but rather for the unethical practice of plagiarizing them from an article that had earlier appeared in Commentary magazine.
When Reed petitioned to join the University of Georgia’s prestigious debating society, his “win at all costs” approach actually got him “blackballed” by members who worried about his enthusiasm for dirty tricks and hard-ball politics and feared that he would attempt to use the organization to further his own political agenda. Though he was eventually accepted, the rebuke did not convince him to change his ways, at least when it came to politics. As Reed was preparing to graduate, he rewrote the organization’s bylaws to allow new members to register up until the day of the vote. He and his supporters then promised a keg party to more than a hundred “new members” and one-time voters willing to support Reed’s chosen candidate, who handily won the election. Reed was eventually reprimanded by the national chapter of the College Republicans, but his candidate remained in office (and later conceded that they “ran a dirty election.”)