Jerry Doolittle has never been exactly the Harvard type. His grades in high school weren't very good, he boasts about his poor attitude, and he was kicked out of prep school. But Harvard wanted him to teach freshmen anyway.
"I was always a discipline problem," says Doolittle, an instructor in Expository Writing. The son of a private school headmaster, Doolittle was kicked out of the Millbrook School for Boys in the spring of his senior year for being "ethically wet behind the ears," he says.
But since graduating from Middlebury in 1955, Doolittle has written speeches for Jimmy Carter, reported for several national newspapers, worked in Morocco and Laos for the U.S. Information Agency, and written several books about his experiences. And now, for the second year in a row, he is teaching Expository Writing.
Not bad for a guy who says he's always had a poor attitude.
As a reporter, Doolittle wasn't interested in editing or writing about politics. Instead, he enjoys writing about popular culture, "Grade Z movies, top-of-the-chart records." Doolittle explains, "no politician had the effect that the guy who invented the shopping center had."
Although the Connecticut native usually prefers culture to politics, he's tried his hand at both. In 1976, he jumped on the presidential bandwagon and joined the Carter press office, but even at the time he wasn't really very interested in politics. "I always thought that presidential campaigns were great theater," he explains.
Speechwriting for Peanuts
When he was working in the speech writing office, Doolittle would get assignments from Jody Powell, Carter's press secretary, or Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan. He would get ideas from talking to White House bureaucrats, and then submit an example. He says that Carter would look at the speech at the last minute and comment on it--usually "a long list of disconnected things" which often had nothing to do with the original subject of the speech.
"Carter took less interest in [speech-writing] than most successful politicians," says Doolittle. "He was not that good with a prepared text. He didn't have any charisma."
Doolittle first got interested in writing while in the army--he was drafted into the military right out of Middlebury. "They had an optional program at that time--you could go into the army or the federal penetentiary. I chose the military option." Quickly realizing that if he could type he wouldn't have to march, he became the editor of his post's newspaper.
Doolittle didn't like the army very much, and he says he made that clear in the newspaper. In one issue, the first letters of the column filler he wrote spelled out an obscene message. The issue sold out in 20 minutes, he says, but he was almost brought up on charges. The thing that saved him was his last name--"they were afraid I might be related to General Doolittle," he says, referring to the American war hero who led an infamous air raid against the Japanese.
The Larry Speakes of Laos
When he was a reporter in the 1960s, newspapers weren't really interested in ideas like "What happens to animals at the zoo when they die? Who gets the rug?" So in 1966, Doolittle started working for the government--first at the U.S. Information Agency in Casablanca, then as the embassy press attache in Laos. "I was the Larry Speakes of the war effort in Laos," he says.
Doolittle says Laos gave him the necessary experience to work as a speechwriter for Carter. He says he was hired by the Carter staff because Press Secretary Jody Powell thought he could lie; when Powell looked at the references on his resume, he said, "This guy's listed all those people he was lying to in Asia--he must be good at it," Doolittle explains.
During the three years that Doolittle, his wife and his five sons lived in Laos, the country was embroiled in a civil war similar to the current conflict in Nicaragua. In fact, the Expos instructor says that many of the same people he knew in Laos are now in Central America. There is a whole subculture, he says, of "people who kind of like wars," journalists and CIA agents alike.