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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Robert Vaughn

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By John D. Reed

When the master of ceremonies suggested that Robert Vaughn's speech on Vietnam would move them to "out-rage and indignation," the students in Emerson Hall laughed for a full minute. "I'm serious," pleaded the master of ceremonies. More laughter. Napoleon Solo was in another jam.

For an actor, Vaughn gave a terrible performance. He was tense and rigid. His lips were set as tight as his fisted grip on the podium. In his outrage and indignation he overran words, phrases, whole sentences like a boy delivering an oral report to the sixth grade. But he was not acting. The students, who had been expecting a sardonic, composed, and eminently hollow spy, responded with a standing ovation.

Vaughn has been giving these long, impassioned denunciations of the Vietnam war for a year. He operates on his own, relying only on his friend John Hackett, a free-lance writer who ghostwrites some of the speeches. His U.N.C.L.E. schedule permits him just one or two speeches a month; Vaughn selects forums--mostly universities and political clubs--which provide the maximum publicity. When President Johnson met Vaughn at a party recently, his only comment was, "Hello, Mr. Vaughn. You're the speech-maker, is that right?"

His motive, like his private manner, is straightforward. Vaughn indulges a long standing, intellectual concern for current affairs. "It's a matter of social consciousness," he says. "After a year's worth of research on Vietnam, I decided that there was no justification for our involvement there. I had gathered all his knowledge. I had to make use of it. And I was energized by the insanity of this policy of madness, by this Administration's distortion of history."

In a nation smothered by the blue-silver smog of television Vaughn is a celebrity. No Progressive Labor spokesman could be more appealing to construction workers, taxi cab drivers and unemployed factory hands than the glamorous man from U.N.C.L.E. William Fulbright can't compete with him for the attention of middle class clerks and housewives. He is very much aware of the possibilities created by his star status, and he has chosen to utilize them for the benefit of the anti-war cause. "Everyone doesn't have the podium I have to speak from," he says. "My audiences may come out of sheer curiosity, but they are courteous and they stay to listen."

In private conversation you observe Vaughn with the same initial expectation: the exciting, capable and sophisticiated spy. After the first few questions and answers, however, there is an unmistakable let-down. It's not his fault. U.N.C.L.E. appears only once a week. The rest of the time Vaughn is honest, intelligent, occasionally ungrammatical. Fine. But, because of an enduring romanticism that dates back to the time you saw your first John Wayne western, you would like him to be more than he is. And the traces of Napoleon Solo cool--the clipped flippancy and modest arrogance--only heighten the unwarranted but inescapable disillusionment. You want to put him back into his element, the televised make-believe of T.H.R.U.S.H. villains, walkie-talkie pens, tranquilizer guns and the resourceful Illya.

As part of his personal crusade against the war, Vaughn has offered to add his personal prestige to the campaigns of anti-war candidates. In 1968, he will whistle-stop through states where important doves, including Senators Church, Morris, McGovern and Gruening, are running for re-election.

He does not enjoy the prospect. "I abhor giving speeches, I detest shaking hands, I detest in the most abominable manner signing autographs." And those babies, those terrible, drooling babies. But Vaughn wants to help, and he knows that his face and name may lend respectability to an anti-war movement which needs it. The effectiveness of the April 12 March in New York, in Vaughn's view, was riddled by tactical errors--a slate of controversial speakers, the wild forays of urban guerrillas and a contingent of exhibitionist hippies Being-In.

Along with Ramparts publisher Edward Keating. Vaughn is seeking support for a massive March on Washington on July 4. "For speakers we would get the five Nobel Peace Prize winners who oppose the war," he says. "It would be done with dignity, and maybe everybody will cut their hair one inch shorter, not burn draft cards, not carry NLF banners and not burn flags for this one day."

His obsession with respectability and the practical politics of protest barely disguises an emotional, radical opposition to the war. At the end of the Harvard speech, someone asked him if draft resistance could be justified. Considering the nature of the Vietnam conflict, Vaughn said, he unequivocably condoned all forms of disobedience and protest. He is not a pacifist, but if drafted (a hypothetical disaster, since he is 33) he would either leave the country or take the issue to the courts on the grounds that the Nuremberg trials held that "a man's personal morality supersedes that of the state."

At first, it's hard to believe that Vaughn does not want to be Senator, or even Governor of California. After all, he is an actor, the Man from U.N.C.L.E.; one of Hollywood's Golden Boys. The firm precise features, the lavish year-round tan, the sleek hair tipped with gray--in short, the sort of well-known, personable entertainer with whom Spencer Roberts could do wonders. In a dark blue, pin-striped suit with rep tie, Vaughn looks like a million votes.

But his refusal to compromise with "the apocalyptic insanity" of the Administration is not the stuff of which politicians are made. And Vaughn, a registered Democrat, knows it. "Look, I was trained to be an actor. I'm not a professional protester. I have no inclination to public life. I want to stop the war. Then I want not to be heard from again. I will rue the day I'm ever involved in another cause--because it depletes me emotionally and intellectually every day."

When he begins to talk of his career, he loses the poise and tough-minded agility with which he confronts Vietnam. "I want to win Academy Awards and do great things on the screen," he says. There is a desperate, almost pathetic, eagerness to do "significant motion pictures" with the New Wave. He speaks with pride of the ten movie offers he received this spring, but it turns out that all were Hollywood productions. One wants to tell him that he is just too good-looking, too smooth. The New Wave doesn't come after the Robert Vaughns, and Academy Awards aren't synonymous with "great things."

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is at once incidental and central to Vaughn's ambition. The show is fun. The two-year contract is oppressingly binding. "I don't consider TV serial drama to be anything other than a way to get out of television. Still, I can't think of a better television show to do than U.N.C.L.E. It requires absolutely no commitment emotionally or intellectually." The implication is that U.N.C.L.E. is simply a glamorous, money-making lark which keeps his name before the public until better things come along.

Vaughn is just as ambitious about his intellectual status. In escaping the Troy Donahue-Rock Hudson stereotype of Hollywood mentality, he has become unduly defensive about the validity of his Vietnam analysis and intellectual credentials in general. Vaughn never examines a situation; he does "research," compiling "data" which is then "compartmentalized." To a question about Ronald Reagan's political actions Vaughn replied, "I don't give answers to that type of question until I've researched the matter fully. Reagan does his homework."

A proud graduate of Evelyn Wood's speed-reading institute, Vaughn is quick to tell you that he receives and reads "54 magazines--from the Peking Review to the National Review." He has researched all of the State Department's papers on Vietnam and reads the Congressional Record daily. He corresponds with Senators McGovern, Church, Morris, Gruening, Kennedy, Hatfield, Clark, and Hartke. And he is writing a Ph.D. thesis on "McCarthyism in the American Theatre" for the Department of Communications at the University of Southern California. When he finishes, he will teach a one-night-a-week seminar in International Relations.

"I don't have many actor friends," says Vaughn. "I find others more stimulating intellectually. Actors are too involved with self, less involved with the outer, real world." An exception is Steve Allen whom Vaughn respectfully describes as a consummate intellectual. "He has a library of books and clipped periodicals which covers from floor to ceiling the walls of his study."

This determined, well-documented intellectualism relaxes when Vaughn discusses Vietnam. Of those politicians who support the war he says, "I have made an evaluation of their psyches and makeup, and I fear that I come up with nothing but negative responses." Slowly, the stiff, contrived prose becomes washed with delightful vehemence. "I think that people who don't object to the war are either ignorant or indifferent. Let's face it, the guys on my side are good guys, just good guys," says the good guy from U.N.C.L.E. "The other guys are not good guys. That's all there is to it.

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