College Walk


Checkered Past

Last November, Maurice “Mike” Gravel (rhymes with Maurice Ravel), former Democratic senator from Alaska, stopped for lunch at Le Monde, a brasserie at West 112th Street and Broadway. Seven months earlier Gravel ’56GS had become the first Democrat to formally announce his campaign for president in 2008. Hardly anyone noticed at the time, and even by November, Gravel could spend the better part of an afternoon in a busy New York restaurant without being recognized. He had no personal wealth, no war chest, no constituency, no media presence. And yet, in a clue to his personality, and between bites of mesclun salad, Gravel expressed perfect confidence that in January 2009, he and his wife, Whitney, would be moving into the White House.

The audacity of hope, indeed.

At 77, Gravel is a big, friendly, talkative, passionate, energetic, calculating, and singularly ambitious man who performed daredevil feats of conscience on the Senate floor while Barack Obama was still in knee socks. Those acts have particular resonance today and give Gravel serious street cred when it comes to exposing malfeasance and ending unpopular wars. Battle-tested, battle-ready, Gravel exudes the husky virility of a man who loves a good filibuster, mixing strains of firebrand populism with a forceful candor that has set him apart from his more cautious Democratic counterparts.

Born to French-Canadian immigrants in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1930, Gravel, who is dyslexic, struggled in school and was held back in third grade, even as he dreamed of becoming president. Later, he attended American International College in Springfield. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Gravel decided “in a burst of patriotism” to leave school and enlist. “I wanted to be a spy,” he said. “You know — romantic, tough.”

After serving for four years in the Counter Intelligence Corps, Gravel moved to New York to finish college. He was accepted into Columbia’s School of General Studies, where he studied economics with Victor Fuchs and Boris Stanfield. “I became good friends with Stanfield,” Gravel says, his voice swelling with admiration. “I went to his apartment and we’d talk about Russia and the Soviet Union and Communism — the whole thing. It was awesome. He was a great, great teacher. I never had to study history: I just absorbed it through my capillaries.”

To support himself while studying, Gravel tried different jobs, none of which he liked. Then he read that Jonas Salk had worked his way through med school driving a cab. Inspired, Gravel bought a street map, took a test, and became a New York City cabbie.

  After graduating in 1956, Gravel set his sights on the U.S. Senate. He figured that Alaska, with its tiny population, would be one of the easier places to win a seat. The strategy worked; after serving two terms in the Alaska House of Representatives, Gravel was elected to the Senate in 1969. But few suspected that the tall Alaskan with the New England accent would go to Washington and do what freshman legislators do in the movies — risk his career to force dramatic political change.

In June of 1971, Gravel was in the midst of his historic five-month filibuster against a bill to renew the military draft, a high-wire maneuver that compelled President Richard M. Nixon to cut a deal allowing the draft to expire. One night during that same month, Gravel received a strange phone call from a man he didn’t know. The man identified himself as Daniel Ellsberg, and he wanted to ask Gravel a favor.

Ellsberg was a disillusioned ex–military analyst and Vietnam combat veteran who had access to what would become known as the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of top-secret materials detailing how the U.S. government ensnared itself in Vietnam. Wanting to make the information public without exposing himself to legal jeopardy, Ellsberg had taken the papers to several congressional leaders, including J. William Fulbright and George McGovern, in hopes that someone would read the classified pages into the Senate record. Such an act would presumably be protected under the Speech or Debate Clause found in Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which shields members of Congress from arrest during their attendance of a House or Senate session, except in cases of “Treason, Felony, and Breach of the Peace.” But the legal territory was murky, the political risks enormous, and Ellsberg found no takers on Capitol Hill. Instead, he leaked the papers to the Washington Post and the New York Times. The latter began publishing them on June 13. An outraged Nixon got an injunction to halt publication, and the case made its way up the courts. That’s when Gravel’s phone rang.

“What happened,” said Gravel, “is that someone told Ellsberg that there was this young guy out there trying to filibuster the draft. So I get a call from Ellsberg, and he said, ‘Will you read the Pentagon Papers into your filibuster?’ And I said, ‘Yes, and let’s hang up.’ My view was simple; if former Secretary of Defense McNamara felt it was important to know how we got into Vietnam, I felt it was a thousand times more important for the American people to know how we made this colossal mistake.”

On June 29, 1971, in a voice tight with emotion, Gravel began reading the papers into the record of his Subcommittee on Buildings and Grounds (a parliamentary misstep prevented him from reading them into his filibuster). The next day, the Supreme Court ruled that the government had failed to prove that publication of the Pentagon Papers would harm national security, but that if the newspapers chose to publish, they did so at their own risk. The newspapers stopped publishing. Gravel found himself alone behind enemy lines.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “Would I go to jail? Would I be impeached? Censured? And where was the courage of the press?”
A few days after the Supreme Court decision, Gravel contacted David Rotberg, an editor who had worked at the Pentagon, and asked him to be his editor for the Pentagon Papers, which Beacon Press had agreed to publish in book form. There was no budget for the project, but Gravel gave Rotberg a dollar, thus placing him on the Senate payroll. The Justice Department quickly stepped in to halt publication, a grand jury was convened in Boston, and Rotberg and Beacon Press were subpoenaed. Gravel fought back. “I had my attorney say, ‘You can’t subpoena them, they’re my employees, they’re on the payroll. You subpoena anyone, you come and subpoena me.’”

The case was promptly bumped up to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

“They said, ‘Senator, you’re safe, but Beacon Press and Rotberg are liable,’” Gravel recalled. “So I tell my attorneys, ‘Lookit. Let’s go to the Supreme Court. I don’t care if I lose, but I can’t let Beacon and Rotberg twist in the wind.’ So we go to the Supreme Court and we lose, 5 to 4. What the Court said was that if I release the papers as a senator within the Senate domain, then no one can touch me. But if I published as a private citizen, then I’m liable. So I was now liable, because I’d published with Beacon Press.” 

By then it was June of 1972, and Nixon, who knew Watergate was being uncovered, was no longer in a position to attack a sitting senator. With a little luck, then, Gravel dodged a career-ending bullet.  “I could have been indicted,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Gravel deplores those in the current Congress who have failed to throw their bodies in front of the Iraq War freight train, and some of that contempt came out during the first Democratic presidential debate in April 2007. With zingers like “Some of these people frighten me” and “Tell me, Barack, who do you want to nuke?” Gravel became a hot item on the cable news circuit, cast as the salty curmudgeon who eats feckless politicians for lunch. Suddenly, he was everywhere, lecturing MSNBC host Chris Matthews on media responsibility, yukking it up with Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, and getting thousands of hits on YouTube. But for all his newfound popularity, no one seemed very interested in discussing his radical platform, which includes replacing federal income taxes with a national sales tax, recognizing gay marriage, implementing “direct democracy” through federal-level ballot initiatives, and legalizing pot. Then came the forgettable June primary debate in New Hampshire, a two-hour event in which moderator Wolf Blitzer limited Gravel to just five minutes of speaking time. But out in cyberspace, a devoted band of supporters kept the flame alive, posting video clips of Gravel moralizing about everything from the war on drugs to health care. And in July, Gravel appeared on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, where he told the mystified host, “George, I’ll be president.” 

Back at Le Monde last fall, Gravel finished his meal and paid his bill. As a student, he had survived on cheap meals from the old Lion’s Den Grill, which was all he could afford on his cabbie’s salary. “In those days, if you made fifteen bucks a night, boy, that was big money,” he said. “Sometimes I’d work 24 hours. But as luck would have it, I had no accidents during that whole period.”

As Gravel got up to leave, he pulled from his wallet a campaign business card emblazoned with the slogan Let the People Decide, and handed it to the waitress. “I’m Mike Gravel,” he said with a smile, “and I’m going to be president.”

The waitress looked at him with surprise, having no idea who he was. Then she blushed and thanked him and began clearing the table.
— Paul Hond


At Wellfleet

The wind that gnarled
and gnawed these pines
into their grotesque, grace-
ful shapes over how many
hundreds of years still plies
its tools of vector and of force
on me as well as those boughs.
Perhaps our perfume
is sweeter for the struggle,
the spatters of shadow
they hurl on the ground
in the sunlight that much

more painterly. Thank you,
Lord, for the opportunity
to hear the chickadee
once more, to watch the
beetle scurry along
the banister of the porch
where you allow him to run,
for the huge bird
whose shadow ripples
over the grass
in search of its prey
— Bill Zavatsky ’74GS/SOA


Executor Privilege

If Edward Mendelson hadn’t known W. H. Auden so well, he might have gotten to know him better.

As a teenager, Mendelson sought — and got — an audience with the great English poet in his New York apartment. As a graduate student, Mendelson chose Auden for his dissertation topic. By the time he was 26 and an assistant professor at Yale, Mendelson had become such an authority on Auden’s work that the poet invited him to be his literary executor. “I’ve met a young man who knows more about me than I do,” Auden confided to a friend.

But in Auden’s presence, Mendelson always found himself at a loss for words. “I was too nervous,” he says. “I regarded him as The Great Man. And Auden clearly most enjoyed talking to people who knew things about science or some obscure historical period. It was hard for me to have a conversation with him because he was what I knew about.”
Mendelson, who is the Lionel Trilling Professor in the Humanities at Columbia, speaks from his home office in Morningside Heights. He finally has time to discuss the life of a literary executor, having just returned the galley proofs of Auden’s Prose, Volume III, to Princeton University Press.

It’s an Auden-saturated existence, he says. Yet he doesn’t consider himself an Auden disciple. Indeed, he doesn’t think it’s possible to be such a thing. Auden believed too deeply in the primacy of the individual.  “The uniqueness of individuality against all the forces in government and culture that want to treat human beings as categories: That was his big subject for 30 years,” Mendelson says. “Nothing could betray him more than discipleship.”

So Mendelson has studied Auden exhaustively,  but not, as it turns out, exclusively. The Auden wall of his office is impressive — poetry, biographies, critical studies, and correspondence from desktop to ceiling — but so are the walls devoted to his other enthusiasms. There’s a long row of computer manuals and reference books; Mendelson moonlights as a tech geek and has been contributing to PC Magazine since 1988. Elsewhere in the apartment there are shelves and shelves of Virginia Woolf, who wrote three of the novels Mendelson examined in his most recent critical work, The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life. Mendelson is also a leading authority on Thomas Pynchon and a collector of Baedeker guidebooks.

It’s the sort of magpie eclecticism that Auden — if he’d gotten to know Mendelson a little better — probably would’ve admired. But the poet clearly knew he was dealing with an independent sensibility.

“When I put together a collection of essays for him, he asked, ‘Why didn’t you include my essay on Romeo and Juliet?’” Mendelson recalls. “And I didn’t really know how to respond, because it wasn’t a very good essay — at least, I knew that it was not as good as others. So I just shook my head, no. And he beamed.”

It’s been a busy year for Mendelson — Auden was born in 1907, and the centennial celebrations have been more or less continuous. Mendelson says he’s been on the road nearly every week giving readings, lectures, and talks.

“A motto that I have no embarrassment adopting from Auden I found in one of his letters: ‘Anything for a quiet life.’ I keep looking forward to 99 quiet years until the next centenary.”

But apart from the sheer number of public appearances, he says, 2007
hasn’t demanded anything extraordinary of him. It saw the publication of two new Auden poetry collections — a selected and a collected. But those had been finished and in the hopper for years. Mendelson was relieved that the centenary finally prompted the publishers to bring them out.

And he was pleased that he could take part in all the Auden festivities without having to plan them or put them on.

“I think Auden’s real fans are not very good at organizing things. They prefer to stay home and read,” Mendelson says. “In the poem ‘Under Which Lyre,’ Auden contrasts the children of Hermes with the children of Apollo. The children of Apollo are always organizing other people, and the children of Hermes just want to be left alone. And Auden had a little bit of Apollo in him — a little bit. But he didn’t like it.”
— Eric McHenry


Is This Thing On?

Every day for nearly two years, associate electrical engineering professor Dan Ellis attached a $100 MP3 digital audio recorder to his belt as soon as he left for work. He’d record his entire day — even in the face of uneasiness from some colleagues and several counter clerks. His wife, in fact, banned the recorder in the house because she found it “creepy.” By the time he retired the device in March 2006, Ellis had amassed some 2000 hours of audio recordings, stored on 15 DVDs.

Ellis is one of many computer scientists and engineers who are creating what have come to be known as “life logs.” Ellis began his project, funded in part by a grant from Microsoft, because of how cheap and easy it is to collect digital audio. “It’s an awful lot of information about what’s going on in your life,” says Ellis. “I just had the sense that this data has to have something useful in it.” Ellis had begun to investigate how the recordings could be used to generate statistics and track patterns of his daily life. But lately his attention has focused on speech recognition and its capability to give inaccessible data like MP3 files a search function as quick and easy as most e-mail providers now have.

A speech-recognition program would be invaluable to any professional setting, providing a veritable transcription of the workday. With it, colleagues could bounce ideas around freely and fluidly, uninterrupted by the burden of jotting everything down. The scientist, the writer, the musician, or any professional who relies on brainstorming could speak his thoughts out loud into the recorder, assured that they could be quickly accessed later. As an engineer, Ellis understands the value of being able to retrace steps, rehypothesize, and begin again. “I like the idea of having an artificial backup of my thinking so that a lost thought might be salvaged,” he says.

This was the vision of electrical engineer Vannevar Bush, the godfather of life logging. In 1945, Bush described in the Atlantic Monthly the memex, as in “memory extender,” a device that never came into existence but has continued to serve as an inspiration. It was imagined as a personal microfilmed library, “in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” By marking a code on the microfilm, the memex could create cross-references among multiple sources. This is not far from what a Web site’s hyperlinks do today, but the memex would have also tracked a person’s flow of ideas, something Ellis believes speech recognition can help accomplish. A lost thought could be salvaged just by typing in a keyword and recalling its entire conversation.

As they exist today, speech-recognition programs are effective when a person is speaking directly into a telephone receiver but have less success with deciphering a sidewalk conversation in New York City. Ellis, therefore, has the additional task of developing a program that can recognize and separate ambient noise from foreground voices. “For a recorded piece of music, the program we’re developing can get it right 70 percent of the time,” he says. “But for outdoors, it can only get it 20 percent of the time, which is still better than guessing, right? That’s the direction we’re going.”

In a greater sense, the direction we’re going is toward a digital database composed of all kinds of information about our lives, including books, cards, CDs, letters, memos, papers, photos, pictures, presentations, and home movies as well as audio life logs. Such are the items in the personal archive of another life logger, Gordon Bell, a researcher at Microsoft’s Media Presence Research Group. “Ideally, you want to integrate many different kinds of information,” Ellis explains. “So, it would be your e-mail, the Web site pages you visit, the documents on your computer, your phone conversations, and your face-to-face conversations.”

Such a program would solve a problem that has troubled Ellis since his graduate days at MIT. Frustrated by how little work he accomplished, Ellis would write down exactly what he was doing every 15 minutes. It was a sort of rudimentary life log, an effort “ to try to get some handle on where all the time was going.”
For Ellis’s sake, let’s hope it doesn’t take a lifetime of work to find out.
— Emily Brennan ’03BC