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The Life of Brian


By Michael W. Hirschorn

TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO, in a small house-hospital in the tiny town of Silver Creek, N.Y., 30 miles southwest of Buffalo, Ross Charles Gennuso looked down at his grandson Brian Ross Gennuso and muttered, "There's gonna be a bright boy."

Yes, auguries of brilliance began early for Brian Ross Melendez, born Gennuso.

When Brian was no more than seven or eight, his natural father Charles Gennuso recalls, "he could recite the presidents back and forwards within one or two minutes. He amazed me. I well near fell over."

When Brian was all of 12 years old, he was on the verge of being confirmed in the Catholic church when he decided that he could not intellectually reconcile the church with his own beliefs. "We had gone through all the classes and I was going to be his sponsor," says his mother Dolores, an administrative assistant at a local community college. "I decided, before I go through with this I want to see if maybe I'm not right and they're wrong," Brian recalls. Brian refused to go through with the ceremony, becoming a born-again Christian a few years later.

Those are the kinds of anecdotes that people generally tell about presidents after they've been elected.

But Brian Melendez '86 is the kind of guy who over-achieves in his spare time, and Dolores skips nary a beat when asked where her son wants to go in life: "To the White House."

That may be because the word 'president' has been attached to Brian's name a number of times already. To wit: Brian was national president of the 900-chapter Junior Classical League as a senior in high school, class president of his Florida public high school in his junior year, governor of Boy's State, Florida state president of the national honors society, college resident of the Junior Classical League, and chairman of the Harvard-Radcliffe Undergraduate Council. Brian's Government Department thesis was on presidential disability and succession.

All this success has left Brian with something of a public image problem. People aren't really sure he's human. He is impeccably groomed, neatly dressed, speaks with usually irrefutable logic, writes constitutions on the side, regularly churns out massively footnoted and detailed reports of all sorts, and is not given to flamboyance of any kind.

He has almost single-handedly developed the Council's machinery, as parliamentarian, vice-chairman, chairman, and member of numerous student and student-faculty committees. Among other achievements, he produced definitive reports on freedom of speech at Harvard, after students pegged Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger '38 with tomatoes; the potential for an honor code at Harvard; and the controversial disciplinary Committee on Rights and Responsibilities. He has also played a major role in establishing the Endowment for Divestiture, an alternative to the Class Gift Fund designed to pressure Harvard to divest its South Africa holdings.

YET, FOR ALL HIS accomplishments in four years at the Undergraduate Council, he may forever be identified with the 90 pages of by-laws he unloaded on a shocked council at the end of his freshman year. (One provision stated, "The term 'shall,' with respect to persons shall entail a duty to perform.")

And while Melendez is now universally admired and acknowledged as the father of the current student government, his public persona may have accounted for his near defeat at the hands of little known challenger Betsy Touhey '86 when he ran for a second term as Council chair in February of 1985. Touhey, who became a candidate only after a group of council representatives drew straws earlier that evening, lost to Melendez by one vote.

Melendez readily admits that has not always been his own best advertisement. "I'm still an extremely shy, insecure, socially inept person," he says. He is leaning back Lee Iacocca-style on a cushion in a closet-sized South House single, packed with electronic gimmickery, file cabinets, and impeccably stacked back copies of The Crimson, The Independent, The Salient, The Gazette, and the Harvard College Forum.

Melendez regrets that for all his success at Harvard, he has not been able to overcome his own insecurities. "I'm very uncomfortable at parties; I'm very awkward at dealing with people; I can't ask women out on dates for the most part--although I can ask people for votes and I can try to persuade people to think like I do," he says. "I'm not afraid of crowds and speaking to people. I'm afraid of small groups where I have to be myself rather than be an officer of the Undergraduate Council or a public official. I wish I had gotten through Harvard feeling more comfortable with people."

Touhey remembers, "One time I threw a party solely so he would go out and have a good time--I invited all his friends and everybody he knew--but he was in a horrible mood, which is something I never forgave him for."

Yet, it is in small groups that Melendez sheds some of his business-like exterior, exposing a side rarely seen in public.

"Behind the parliamentary exterior, he's kind of a romantic," says Richard Bennett '85-'86, Melendez's best friend and secretary of the council when Brian was chairman. "He has dreams and fears and feelings like everybody else."

ONE CAN GO A long way toward explaining the Melendez persona by looking at how he arrived at Harvard. His route to Cambridge brought him a long way from the fundamentalist, born-again Christian community in Ocala, Florida to which he moved at age six. His family, he says, "is really into the Pentacostal, fundamentalists Bible-thumping revivalist tradition of born-again Christianity" associated with the Moral Majority. For much of his childhood, his family also was quite poor, living "in a mobile home in a dingy little trailer park in the outskirts of town." He says, however, that his family has become more financially secure in recent years.

The Harvard culture shock caused Melendez to re-evaluate a whole series of beliefs and values that had become intuitive in the almost homogeneous world of his childhood. "By the time I came to college I thought I was pretty secure in what my religion was about," Melendez says. "But since I've been at Harvard I've just been hit with the most wonderful challenges to what I believe."

Melendez has, in the past four years, made a number of revisions in his world view, attempting to reconcile his intellectual liberalism with his conservative religious beliefs. As a result, he has found himself far to the left of mainstream fundamentalism, defending "a fairly radical interpretation of the gospels that I think is something my Harvard experience has brought about."

He says, "I regard the entire academic experience as trying to find the proof of faith through reason--and probably most born-again Christians will tell you that you can't prove faith through reason, faith is faith and that is the end of the matter. But I don't buy that."

THE CONFLICTING PULLS of faith and intellect left him at one point last year coping with what he calls a "pretty serious emotional trauma" that caused him to withdraw to his room for two weeks. Melendez says close friends--whom he only half-jokingly calls his "Board of Directors"--"stayed with me all the time, conducted my affairs, ran the Undergraduate Council for me, and basically represented me to the world so that nobody knew I was having problems--and talked me through it until I recovered."

The Harvard experience has also created something of a gap between the new Brian and his mother and step-father in Florida (Brian's original parents divorced when he was six). Brian recounts how he told his mother that he would be sharing a house this summer with two women (Touhey and her older sister). His mother wrote back a letter chastising him for living with members of the opposite sex, concluding: "Maybe I'm old-fashioned or just have higher moral standards."

"I can deal without that kind of smug, judgmental Christianity," Brian retorts. "That's not what Christianity is all about."

Melendez, in trademark style, wrote his mother a 15-page letter refuting every objection she made to his summer roommates. He says, "My attitude toward that kind of living arrangement is there's nothing wrong with that whatsoever. My parents are of the opinion that it carries some kind of stigma of immorality, but the basis of that is their upbringing, not any kind of moral standard."

Dolores Melendez, for her part, says she is confident that her son's rethinking of Christianity will not lead him away from the church. "I can't forsee him turning his back on Christianity," she says. But she warns, "I see a little bit of secular humanism creeping in." Does she condemn that? "No," she says. "I'm not his judge, I'm his mother."

Brian says he has come to no final conclusions about his world-view but is confident that Jesus Christ fits comfortably within it. Though he now has a girlfriend, he continues to forswear drink and drugs.

"We would joke about the premarital sex issue," says Touhey. "But whether he goes home and prays for me I have no idea."

Brian says of his religion, "I'm comfortable enough with it now that I can walk off into the Christian community and feel like a part of it, but still be sort of a thorn in the side of mainstream Christianity because I accept it in the context of this liberal, intellectual tradition."

Melendez's newfound intellectual beliefs mean, however, "that for the rest of my life I'm going to be confronting the kind of conservative--I almost want to say Republican--Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell Christianity with my liberal, intellectual Christianity."

Melendez continues, "There's a message that needs to be brought from the academic community to the Christian community which is that you should celebrate your religion in the tradition of the larger pluralistic culture which we're a part, rather than celebrate it as a crusade against the evil that dwells in everything that you're not a part of."

FRIENDS SAY MELENDEZ has mellowed significantly since he first hit Cambridge. Early on, says former Council chairman Gregory S. Lyss '85, who is known for his colorful language, Brian would tell him, `"Come on Greg let's cut out the F-word' or `Let's cut out the S-word."' Lyss says Melendez eased up after a while.

Among acquaintances, Brian is known for having a funny, quirky sense of humor. "It always really surprises people when Brian's funny," says Touhey. One friend recalls his biting impersonations of fellow Council jocks and of Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III.

Another friend recounts an April Fools joke Melendez played on the Independent last spring, after the fact that the weekly newspaper paid no rent for its Canaday Hall offices was raised in a Council meeting (the Council has to pay for a smaller space beneath Canaday).

Melendez, the friend says, sent the Independent a series of forged letters from Faculty Secretary John P. Marquand and then-Dean of the College John B. Fox Jr. '59 on University Hall stationary demanding that the Indy pay $15,000 for its offices. The letters, true to Melendez form, featured exhaustive documentation, appendices, footnotes, and cross-references. The Independent, not suprisingly, fell for the ploy.

Melendez, after a year off, heads a few hundred yards north of Canaday Hall to Harvard Law School. In the meantime, he is looking for a job and maintaining close ties to the Council, where he served as a loud and often nettlesome back-bencher this year. Melendez also worked this year as a paid executive secretary to the Council, a move Touhey says did not help him gain a sense of independence and self-confidence. "Brian at Harvard has developed so much of his identity from the Undergraduate Council," Touhey says.

Melendez maintains a healthy self-confidence about his professional prospects even as he continues to question his identity and religion. But he also professes to have tempered his desire to make it to the White House--a desire that dates from his discovery of John F. Kennedy at age 8. One current career ideal is to be an intellectual/politician in the Winston Churchill/Daniel Patrick Moynihan mode.

"One possible scenario is being a state legislator and maybe becoming a a state or national level officer some day, but I think it's equally likely that I will end up being an academic and teaching somewhere or just being a lawyer and writing on the side," he says. "Whatever it is I do it's going to have to be something fairly intellectual in order to keep me from climbing the walls, and I don't think politics alone can satisfy that. If I end up being a politician it will end up being as a hobby."

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