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On this occasion in 1936, jubilant Harvardians gathered in Tercentenary Theater to hear and honor one of the most popular presidents in the history of the country, who gave a keynote address and uttered endless platitudes about the University's role in the nation and the world.
Today an estimated 18,000 sons and daughters of America's oldest college will throng to the same location to hear a similar speech. But the president, also one of the most popular in the history of the country, is vacationing at his ranch retreat in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Fifty years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt '04, a prominent son of Harvard and a product of the Eastern Establishment, celebrated the success of Harvard and its graduates and graciously accepted an honorary law degree from President James B. Conant '13, who would later work for Roosevelt in developing the atomic bomb.
In 1986, Ronald W. Reagan, a graduate of Eureka College and a lifetime opponent of Eastern liberal power, decided not to accept Harvard's longstanding offer to attend the 350th, citing scheduling difficulties. His staff announced the decision this March after Harvard, which has lobbied vigorously against the education-related policies of the president since he took office in 1980, chose not to award an honorary degree to Reagan or any other invited guest.
Scrambling for months to find a suitable replacement for Reagan after his suprise rebuke, the University lured Reagan's secretary of state, George P. Shultz, to headline today's convocation, entitled "Harvard in a Changing World."
Meanwhile the president and Mrs. Reagan are scheduled to celebrate the 350th by riding horses, chopping wood and sunning in the California mountains, where they have been since August 16. Usually one of the deadest times in Washington, the late summer is generally vacation period for the Congress and the White House.
It seems that although the University spent five years and millions of dollars to organize and finance the 350th celebration, for a variety of reasons it just couldn't match the chemistry between this ivory tower and the White House in the 1930s.
Harvard students and faculty, and at times the administration as well, have exhibited more than a little antipathy toward the conservative California Republican. When Harvard invited Reagan more than 18 months ago to attend the 350th, protesters called the president "the enemy of higher education" and lambasted President Derek C. Bok for asking his indulgence. Protesters were especially disturbed by the strong possibility that the president, if he accepted the invitation, would receive an honorary degree, as tradition dictates.
Responding to the pressure, the seven-man governing Corporation early last October broke with the tradition and decided it would not confer honorary degrees, Harvard's highest honor, at the 350th as they had at the 300th and the 250th anniversary celebrations. One administrator called the decision "the only graceful way out" of a confrontation with the Harvard community.
The local and national media reported Harvard's decision not to award degrees as a direct blow to the president, a classic case study in Harvard Hates America--coverage which surely did not escape the attention of the White House's public relations department.
Reagan responded in turn by breaking another tradition, that of a presidential presence at Harvard's major anniversary celebrations. His staff informed Harvard of the decision two months after they originally indicated they would, sending organizers into a tailspin search for a replacement.
While 350th organizers insist they have no reason to believe that Reagan objected to the degree decision, the circumstances surrounding the President's rejection of Harvard's invitiation suggest otherwise.
Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger '38 and White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Reagan '40, both of whom were undergraduates during the 300th anniversary--at which the University bestowed scores of honorary degrees--had reportedly been gently inquiring as to whether their boss would receive one as a condition for accepting Harvard's invitation to speak at the second convocation on Friday, September 5.
A White House spokesman contacted after the notification said Reagan had scheduling conflicts, but said, in the next sentence, that it was too early to tell what those conflicts might be. "It's just too far in advance to say what Reagan will be doing on those dates," said Jack Weber, deputy press secretary.
Weber explained: "The President is a very busy man. He gets invitations to speak at universities all the time, and some of those universities are celebrating their anniversaries."
Another spokesman contacted this week refused to comment on whether Reagan had planned his vacation before or after informing Harvard he would not attend. But this spokesman also offered some insight into Reagan's psyche. "It is not easy to be President of the United States. I mean he is a very, very busy man."
The 350th marks the second time Reagan has refused a Harvard invitation. He turned down an offer to speak at Commencement ceremonies in 1981.
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