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He's A Man of the People, But Not Our Man

By Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan and Joshua E. Gewolb, Crimson Staff Writerss

Bill Clinton is in search of a job. And Harvard is in search of a president.

Now, some people think the two could be a match. But others say Clinton's propensity for scandal, notoriety and possible investigations after his term in office make him an unlikely candidate.

It's an "idiotic idea," says humorist Andy S. Borowitz '80, who recently wrote a Harvard Magazine piece spoofing the Clinton rumor.

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles agrees that President Clinton's name won't make the short list.

"I don't believe that Mr. Clinton is very likely to be appointed to the presidency of Harvard," he says. "Don't we all look for an intellectual?"

But while the University community snickers at the suggestion, beyond the Square, Clinton's name has been mentioned prominently in serious media reports about the search for Neil L. Rudenstine's replacement.

The rumor about President Clinton hit the stands in mid-July, in a Boston Globe news article by Patrick Healy.

"With political figures revolving in and out of education posts, some have speculated that President Clinton may also be Harvard material," Healy wrote.

Then in early September, a playful but half-serious 1,300-word essay on the possibility landed on the front page of the Globe's Focus section, which is devoted to commentary and analysis. Over the course of the next three weeks, the Globe printed letters from readers outraged by the suggestion--including one who wrote that a "moral leper" should not head Harvard.

But for those who don't like Bill, there's apparently another Clintonian option. A President Hillary rumor sprouted on MSNBC.com in July--and found its way into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Montreal Gazette and Parade magazine by summer's end.

Like her husband, Hillary Rodham Clinton has no ties to Harvard or experience in academia. But the suggestion of her taking over Mass. Hall has raised ire.

This summer, after conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh mentioned her name on his show as a possible successor to Rudenstine, the University was inundated with messages from Harvard graduates threatening to withhold any future gifts if she were selected.

Columbia University presidential scholar Alan Brinkley says Bill Clinton's appointment could prompt a similar reaction.

"I'm sure there are many affluent Harvard alumni who would stop giving to the University if Clinton became its president," Brinkley says.

"Next Term...Harvard!"

While some of the journalists who have perpetuated the Clinton rumor think the president might be a serious candidate, others say they know it's just idle speculation.

Boston Globe assistant managing editor Peter S. Canellos--who wrote the Focus piece on Clinton--says that although the president has a miniscule chance of succeeding Rudenstine, his suggestion was serious.

"If it weren't for the scandal, there would be more pressure within Harvard to consider it, even if some of the powers that be wouldn't want to see him as president," Canellos says. "I think he would definitely do it."

Canellos also notes that since Clinton will depart the Oval Office in his mid-50s, there's an assumption that he'll be working--and why not at Harvard?

"Bill Clinton is the only truly young ex-president," Canellos says.

Indeed, Canellos adds, appointing Clinton might benefit Harvard by dispelling some of its elitist image.

"He was really transformed by education. That represents what Harvard strives to achieve with its students," he says. "Certainly the universities want to show their meritocratic faces in this era, and Bill Clinton represents that face."

But St. Louis Post-Dispatch gossip writer Harry Levins--who printed the Hillary Clinton rumor in his column over the summer--says he doesn't believe a word of it.

"If I only put stuff in the [column] that I thought was absolutely true, I'd never be able to fill it up," Levins says.

He says he prints gossip about Hillary Clinton as if she were a rock star.

"Hillary Clinton has reached the state in life when she's like Madonna or Michael Jackson," he says. "She's in the same league with Britney Spears. Did I really believe the rumor? No. "

No Kidding

Newspaper readers, in any event, seemed to take the Globe reports about Clinton seriously. These readers, contacted last week by The Crimson, wrote letters-to-the-editor about the Focus piece.

"Did they put it in as a put-on?"

Robert Nail, a Globe reader from East Sandwich, asks rhetorically, "I'm sure they were serious."

"I took it as being serious... At no time did I think it was a joke or a tongue-in-cheek type thing," says James Brady, a Globe reader from Stoneham.

Brown University affiliates also contacted Canellos after the piece ran, asking him why he hadn't floated the idea of Clinton as the president of their school. After he heard the suggestion, Canellos said he thought the notion made sense.

"While Harvard has this sense of itself that would prevent it making an offer to him, Brown has that funky we'll-try-anything kind of spirit. It would maybe suit them well," he says.

The Globe's sources also support the idea that Canellos meant for the suggestion to be taken seriously.

"He seemed to me to take it a lot more seriously than I did," says Sheldon Stern, a retired historian from the John F. Kennedy Library. "I found it hard to believe that this could be a serious possibility, given the troubles he's already had and, more importantly, the likelihood of post-presidential troubles."

A Serious Legacy

Historically, there has been some crossover between political posts and university presidencies.

Woodrow Wilson led Princeton before leading the country, and Dwight D. Eisenhower headed Columbia before becoming commander-in-chief. But those shifts were from university to White House, not the other way around.

Today, being an ex-president is a job in itself, Brinkley says. One of Clinton's advisers agrees that the Arkansan will continue to speak out on political issues after his presidency.

"[Clinton] is destined to continue to play a significant role on the world stage--from domestic issues like health care and race relations, to international issues like AIDS, human rights and peace," says Christopher F. Edley Jr., a Harvard Law School professor and Clinton adviser. "Fundraising for undergraduate athletic facilities would be easy for him, but hardly fulfilling."

A number of former politicians currently serve as university presidents: former Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.) serves as president of the University of Oklahoma, and Sen. Robert Kerrey (D-Neb.) will move to the New School University in New York City when he completes his service this year.

"Do university presidents need to be Clintonesque?" asks David Greenberg, a Hofstadter Fellow at Columbia who has written widely on academia. "In certain respects, yes. They need to please a variety of different constituencies, to use the bully pulpit fearlessly and to have a gift for articulating issues in a way that builds a consensus of the academic community behind them."

But fundamentally, university presidents must display a sense of probity, scholarship and passion for academics that are rare in politics, experts say. They must be removed from the concerns of the day.

"[The university] must be an oasis from the marketplace, and it also must be in some ways an oasis from the political arena," Greenberg says.

In the final analysis, the reasons motivating the Clinton rumors are not products of the same factors that draw some universities to seek politicians for as presidents.

"With the Clintons, it's just sort of this big wish...to have him around," Greenberg says. "A premature nostalgia almost... Everybody wants a piece of him."

Everybody but Harvard, that is.

"On the whole, former presidents have not been drawn to universities except as sites for their libraries," Brinkley says. "I think it's inconceivable either that Harvard would offer Clinton its presidency or that Clinton would take it."

--Staff writer Vasugi V. Ganeshanathan can be reached at ganesh@fas.harvard.edu. Staff writer Joshua E. Gewolb can be reached at gewolb@fas.harvard.edu.

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