This winter, several Harvard professors opened their mailboxes to find anonymous, unmarked envelopes.
Enclosed were copies of “How Harvard Lost Russia,” an article by veteran investigative journalist David W. McClintick ’62 in the January issue of Institutional Investor magazine. In 18,000 words, the spellbinding narrative detailed the University’s effort to reform the Russian economy in the 1990s—and the fraud scandal that resulted. The U.S. Department of Justice alleged that University employees who steered the project violated their federal contracts by making personal investments in the Russian economy, and Harvard paid $26.5 million to settle a government lawsuit.
University President Lawrence H. Summers said in a March interview that he “skimmed” McClintick’s piece. But many professors read it closely—particularly parts suggesting that Summers shielded his close friend Andrei Shleifer ’82, an economist implicated in the government lawsuit, from disciplinary action.
“The story, if true, is damning to Harvard,” according to McKay Professor of Mechanical Engineering Frederick H. Abernathy.
Nearly five decades after McClintick launched his journalistic career at Harvard radio WHRB’s then-headquarters in the Dudley House basement, his reporting sent waves across Harvard Yard.
‘PAST PRESENT FUTURE’
As a freshman, McClintick threw himself into WHRB—but mid-way through sophomore year, he decided to focus on academics.
“I nearly did myself in by spending too many days and nights at WHRB and not enough reading Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau,” he recalls.
He joined the U.S. Army intelligence branch after graduating from Columbia University’s School of Journalism. But four years later, he found himself back in journalism’s trenches—at The Wall Street Journal.
As a beat reporter covering the movie industry, he unearthed an embezzlement scandal at Columbia Pictures. His reporting led to a 1982 book, “Indecent Exposure.” Just as his article on Russia would appear mysteriously in Harvard mailboxes, advance copies of his book galleys were distributed across Hollywood, setting the town abuzz.
Hollywood’s fascination with McClintick might not be over. Film rights for “Indecent Exposure” are in the hands of Edward R. Pressman, producer of “Wall Street,” and he notes an “Indecent Exposure” film is “in development” on his website.
“Indecent Exposure” was nominated for the National Book Award. It did not win, but McClintick’s trophy case still glitters.
His liner notes for Frank Sinatra’s “Trilogy: Past Present Future” won a 1981 Grammy Award for best album text.
“If you’re a writer, you’re supposed to win a Pulitzer or a National Magazine Award. You’re supposed to win a Grammy if you’re a trombone player,” McClintick quips.
McClintick had gained access to Sinatra’s recording sessions, and news accounts from the 1980s said he might write a definitive biography of the singer. McClintick says his interest in Sinatra flourishes to this day, but he declines to discuss his future works.
‘NOT AN ADVOCATE’
McClintick cites Truman G. Capote, Gay Talese, and former Crimson associate managing editor J. Anthony Lukas ’55, as his models. And like the latter two, McClintick has left the daily grind of newspapering to pursue long-form narrative nonfiction.
His painstakingly reported accounts read like riveting novels. “He makes us care by means of the detail that he lavishes on the drama,” reviewer Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in The New York Times.
In recent years, McClintick’s investigative interests have led him to scandals across the globe, from drug trafficking in Colombia to bank bribery in France.
“You look for stories that transcend their setting,” McClintick says. “People want to read about real people who are in difficult situations that they can identify with....You can really see human nature at work, both the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
And at Harvard, the “tawdry Shleifer affair,” as one professor termed it, certainly got ugly.
Summers recused himself from the University’s handling of the Shleifer scandal, but he’s more than a peripheral player in McClintick’s drama.
The article opens in 1996 with an image of Summers and Shleifer in swimsuits on Cape Cod. Five years later, Summers, as Harvard’s president, “made a point of taking aside Jeremy Knowles, then the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, and asking him to protect Shleifer,” McClintick writes.
At the Feb. 7 Faculty meeting that precipitated the president’s demise, Summers—confronted with McClintick’s charges—said he was “not knowledgeable of the facts and circumstances to be able to express an opinion as a consequence of my recusal.”
The Harvard Corporation’s senior fellow, James R. Houghton ’58, would later defend Summers’ response—or lack thereof. “Given his recusal, his consequent lack of knowledge of the University’s deliberations on the matter and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ practice of maintaining the confidentiality of its disciplinary procedures, it would be inappropriate for President Summers to pass judgments on these matters,” Houghton said in a statement after Summers stepped down.
But at the Feb. 7 meeting, Summers’ response elicited murmurs from the gathered professors.
Summers’ allies assailed McClintick’s article. Glimp Professor of Economics Edward L. Glaeser called the article “a potent piece of hate creation.” And the University’s general counsel, Robert W. Iuliano ’83, wrote to Institutional Investor editors protesting the story’s portrayal of Summers.
But those protests did not soften the blow that McClintick’s article dealt to Summers’ presidency.
“It seems to me that the II piece was quite important in getting people in the Harvard community to see the whole story whole,” writes journalist David Warsh, who has covered the Shleifer matter extensively on his website, Economic Principals, in an e-mail.
McClintick says he did not expect the intense reaction his story drew on campus.
“For me, the work is its own reward. The reaction is something separate,” he says. “I’m basically a reporter, a story teller. I’m not an advocate.”
—Staff writer Nicholas M. Ciarelli can be reached at ciarelli@fas,harvard.edu.