The Content of His Character
FOR THE RECORD: Neil L. Rudenstine does not read People magazine. Ditto for Omni and Playboy. His taste in periodicals is much more highbrow: The New York times, Art in America, Harvard magazine. Overall, a most impressive reading list--although somewhat lacking in melodrama and intrigue.
His other tastes are somewhat eclectic, although no less cultivated. He likes ballet and modern dance, especially Trisha Braun and Merce Cunningham. He rarely watches TV--except when Wimbledon and the other big tennis matches are on. He's partial to omelettes at dinner and cold cereal for breakfast. He occasionally eats chocolate-chip cookies.
How do I know all these these things? I certainly didn't hear them from anyone in the super-secretive University administration. No, my information on Harvard's next president comes from a much more reliable source: Rudenstine himself.
A word of explanation is in order. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in The Crimson describing my unsuccessful attempts to trace Rudenstine's activities on his home turf in New York. In it, I posed a number of questions about the mundane details of Rudenstine's life--the point being to emphasize that the Harvard community knew noting about the character of the man slated to take over as president.
Well, Rudenstine did the unexpected. He wrote back. More specifically, he sent me an eight-page handwritten letter responding, in minute detail, to the questions I had raised.
Yes, he takes anchovies on his pizza. Sugar and milk in his coffee. He describes himself as quite a good tipper in restaurants--perhaps because he is sensitive to his own working-call background.
Details like these are not mere trivia. They paint a revealing portrait of Harvard's next president that provides a much-needed touch of color to the tedious descriptions of his academic career. Knowing that Rudenstine likes chocolate desserts make me feel a little more comfortable about placing him in a position of power.
But as I read over Rudenstine's descriptions of himself, I felt something was missing. Did these details really tell me anything about Rudenstine's character? I might be willing to buy a used car from this man, but would I trust him with a $6 billion endowment? I wasn't sure. There had to be some way to find out more about the real Neil Rudenstine.
LONG DRAMATIC PAUSE. Here follows a brief etymology of the word "Character." As used today, the word simply refers to the fundamental qualities of a given individual. Cast your mind back a few centuries, however, and you will find another connotation: that of "handwriting."
The implication is clear. The individual nuances and details of a person's handwriting are closely linked to that person's "character"--at least in theory. With that in mind, I decided to take Rudenstine's letters to someone who could tell me a little about the character of the man behind them.
A little research in the New York phone book turned up the name of Sheila Kurtz, a certified master graphologist who has analyzed the scribblings of Dwight Gooden, Barbara Bush and Donald Trump, among others.
I know what you're thinking. Handwriting analysis? Why not simply take a tarot card reading and be done with it? But Kurtz is legit. She has a corporate letterhead and she's been on ABC news and everything. Trust me, she has a system.
Her analysis of Rundestine's letter highlighted 18 points--with "certain private omissions for public consumption."
Item number six in particular caught my eye. "Basically, he's a rebel at heart," Kurtz had written. One line beneath that, she noted that "he can be defiant to authority." Not exactly the kind of traits one would expect to see in the University's ultimate authority figure.
I decided to call Kurtz and probe a little deeper. What exactly did that mean, a "rebel at heart"?
"It's great," she explained to me. "It means he's adaptable. He could go in different directions."
"I think that he's open," she continued. "If something strikes him, he's very direct--he gets to it. He doesn't follow the same path every day."
It sounded good to me. But I was a little concerned about Items 11 and 14. Kurtz had noted that Rudenstine's writing showed "shades of a shor-lived temper," and that he "could improve his listening skills somewhat."
* "I think the listening skills have to be worked on," Kurtz conceded. "He gets impatient. But it seems to me that he may be improving on his listening."
All in all, Kurtz's view was pretty positive. "It's a nice selection of traits, even at Harvard," she wrote. On the phone she was just as upbeat, assuring me that Rudenstine's handwriting showed that "he could be an interesting guy."
WHAT KURTZ had told me sounded pretty good, and it squared with my general impression of Rudenstine thus far. But it wasn't quite enough. I wanted more.
I decided to check with Marie Bernard, a European analyst whose main claim to fame is that she denounced a set of fake Hitler diaries as forgeries back in 1983.
Kurtz, whose 15-year-old company, A New Slant, caters mainly to corporate clients, apparently had a low opinion of Bernard.
"She's just an entertainer," Kurtz scoffed. But even an entertainer was worth a try. I faxed part of Rudenstine's letter to Bernard.
"In my hand I have the speedy, impatient three-pages writing of an extraordinary daring intellectual," Bernard wrote back. So far so good.
I got a little skeptical a few sentences down however, when she referred to "the legible, proud, upright standing 'I' of April, crowned by a huge accent-like-dot, which looks like a huge wild bird, flying over the i, not yet sure of landing directly on the vowel i." Bernard started out life as an actress, and her flair for the dramatic still showed.
Nonetheless, she pointed doubt some interesting details. A few highlights:
* "The legible, simplified 'Mathew' misses the second t, a symbol of our writer not caring very much about the evangelist or the gospel ascribed to him."
* "The size of the words determine the importance of the content. The larger the size, the more important this word is for the writer. 'Books," written with the utmost clarity and strength, carries off the prize. 'The Times' and 'Harvard' follow. The less important 'magazine' gets only a thread-like scrawl."
* "The huge i-dot comma over 'stine' gives us the assurance that his libido is full in enfolding his psychic and physical forces."
All in all, an intriguing mixture of the ridiculous and the sublime. I'm still not sure what to make of it.
BUT THIS I DO KNOW. In he year I served as associate managing editor of The Crimson, we ran dozens of editorials, signed and unsigned, about President Derek C. Bok. I cannot remember a single instance in which Bok bothered to write back to us. Nor does our former editorial chair. According to our production supervisor, Bok hasn't written to The Crimson in at least five years.
And one of our old editorial cartoonists, Bentley Boyd '89, was once told that Bok had never even heard of the cartoon that ran in this space five days a week for four years.
The mayor of the city of New York responds to articles in the highbrow New York Times and the lowbrow New York Post. Whey does the chief executive of Harvard feel no similar obligation?
A footnote to my story: I wrote back to Rudenstine, attempting to clarify my remarks. I expected the correspondence to end there. It didn't. He responded with another letter--this one only a single page.
This time, I didn't need to look far to find the hidden message. Rudenstine took the time to respond to what I had written. That meant he had read it. It meant that he had taken it seriously and tried to understand it. The subtext of those letters is simple: Rudenstine cares about what students have to say.
And that, at least, is a detain that matters.