Putting D.C. on TV: MacNeil Reviews Washington's Week
After 51 years, the search for truth is still driving journalist Neil MacNeil '49.
MacNeil has spent much of the last half-century seeking to better understand the U.S. Congress.
In the process, he has become a well-respected figure in the Washington press corps, spent 11 years as a commentator on PBS's public affairs program "Washington Week in Review" and has written several books.
MacNeil, a former Winthrop House resident, did not waste any time in earning his Harvard degree-this member of the class of 1949 graduated in 1948.
He wasted even less time in becoming a journalist.
While at Harvard College, MacNeil worked for the Boston Herald as a reporter. Upon graduation, MacNeil headed south to write for The New York Times, where he worked as a general assignment reporter.
MacNeil then spent a year and two months working on a master's degree at Columbia University in New York.
In 1949, United Press International (UPI) hired MacNeil to report on the Washington, D.C. political scene. With the exception of another brief stint at Columbia, during which he received his masters degree, MacNeil would spend the remainder of his career in D.C.
In 1958, MacNeil joined Time magazine as a congressional correspondent. He worked at Time for the next 30 years.
"I did all kinds of stories every week, primarily on national politics," MacNeil says.
MacNeil released his first book, The House of Representatives: Forge of Democracy, in 1963.
The book's success "led to a strange career in television," MacNeil says.
Boston public television station WGBH asked MacNeil to host "MacNeil Reports on Congress," which would be shown on the Eastern Television Network, a forerunner of PBS.
According to MacNeil, in those early days the program "got a little much-it was just me."
But the program would not remain a one-man show for long.
"In February of 1967 we expanded that to four correspondents and a moderator," says MacNeil.
The product was "Washington Week in Review," which soon became a banner program for the newly formed PBS.
"I was on that thing every week for 11 years," MacNeil says.
MacNeil ultimately left the program because he could not countenance what he saw as an unfair imposition upon his journalistic freedom by a station manager.
Early in the administration of former president Jimmy Carter, MacNeil began to point out Carter's failings.
"He made blunder after blunder...he thought he could treat the U.S. Congress like he had treated the Georgia legislature," MacNeil says.
But the station manager was not pleased.
"I had prematurely identified President Carter as an incompetent and the station manager didn't like it," MacNeil says.
It was the station manager's reaction to MacNeil's opinion that ultimately prompted MacNeil to give up the job.
"[My] manager says I'd have to clear material with him. I quit," MacNeil says.
Some of MacNeil's preparation for Washington came in Harvard classrooms, but he says his education about America left him sometimes unprepared for the real thing.
"I majored in American History, [and] found it pretty much upsetting when I got the real stuff," MacNeil says.
MacNeil says he feels that the Harvard history department at that time was too concerned with facts and figures. He says he thinks a greater focus should have been placed upon the analysis of history.
"[There was] no explanation of what the hell was going on," MacNeil says.
MacNeil says he was not exposed to an analytical perspective on history until he arrived at Columbia to do his graduate work.
Years later, MacNeil says he had a conversation with a Harvard dean about his criticism of the College's history program.
"He told me in [the Harvard] graduate school they were teaching high school history teachers," MacNeil says.
In the Class of 1949's 25th anniversary report, MacNeil characterized himself as a skeptic rather than a cynic. He recently says that this philosophy affects his perception of Harvard.
"I'm a skeptic about Harvard, I guess. I love the place, of course, but I can find a lot wrong with it," MacNeil says.
MacNeil is also skeptical about the performance of President Clinton and Congress during the impeachment debate.
"I feel both bodies of the legislature have gone downhill in the last 20 years," MacNeil says.
"There is much more bitterness."
He also criticized Congress's performance during this year's impeachment debate, which he linked to a "pile-up of investigations going back to Watergate."
"I think the Congress has acted kind of shabbily in the whole business," MacNeil says. "The management of the impeachment of Clinton was really mind-boggling.
MacNeil says he finds analysis of the president difficult.
"I don't know how to write about this guy, [what a] strange fellow," MacNeil says. "I find Clinton an astonishingly brilliant human being with an appallingly bad taste-it's unbelievable."
Although MacNeil cut a large profile with his studies of national politics, he had a footnote in history before he even arrived in Cambridge.
But this achievement was far more accidental.
While attending Phillips Exeter Academy as a teenager, MacNeil was badly injured by a baseball. He fell into a coma for 10 days. When he emerged from the coma he wanted to go back to playing baseball. MacNeil's doctor told him that he would have to wear a helmet while batting.
But at that time batting helmets were not available commercially.
"My dad had one made...it was the first ever made," MacNeil says.
That helmet is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
MacNeil continues to make history with his work in and outside of D.C.
MacNeil is currently on the boards of the Mass. Historical Society in Boston and the American Antiquarian Society in Worchester. He as serves as a trustee with the Augustus St. Gordon's historical site in Cornish, N.H.
In addition to these obligations, MacNeil is in the process of what he says may be his most ambitious project to date.
MacNeil is currently working on book about the U.S. Senate, a national stage featuring "the greatest cast and the greatest struggles" over the country's history, according to MacNeil.
This work, which does not yet have a title, has been a long-term project. MacNeil began the process in 1988 when he signed with publisher Little, Brown.
Like his career, MacNeil says, the book is turning out to have a finger in many political pies.
"It's a very difficult subject, everything I touch goes all kinds of strange ways," MacNeil says.