"Yale '62 in Washington"
April 7-10, 2005
By David Scharff
As an admitted reunion junkie, I was an easy mark when Kirk MacDonald and Al Chambers called to talk me into organizing a mini-reunion for Yale 62 in Washington DC, Nation's Capital and self-styled Paris on the Potomac. Approximately 80 classmates and wives or partners signed up for the April 7-10 weekend, the date chosen to coincide with the blooming of the cherry blossoms. The weather turned out to be mostly glorious, in marked contrast to what had been forecast. We had navy blue polo shirts with a special Y '62 insignia over the Capitol dome for everyone to help us remember the festivities.
Most of the reunioners arrived in time for the Thursday evening welcome reception at the Scharffs', glimpsed the cherry trees through a light drizzle, and then packed themselves indoors to connect over wine and Chinese food. Peter Sipple was a surprise addition, having been given a 24-hour trip to Washington for his birthday by his daughter on the proviso that he attend the first day of the Reunion.
On Friday morning, we split up to join scheduled tours, the most popular being Hillwood, the home and garden of Marjorie Merriweather Post, the cereal heiress. Hillwood houses her brilliant display of decorative arts, a collection that she had begun during her 18 months in Russia with one of her husbands who was ambassador to Moscow under Roosevelt. Some classmates saw the stunning Modigliani exhibit at the Phillips Gallery while others who visited the brand new Museum of the American Indian on the Mall were impressed by the range of exhibits and recommended the amazing cafeteria there.
On Friday afternoon, we were guests at National Public Radio, a visit organized by Lucy Bremner, Bob's wife, who works in the NPR development department. The CEO Kevin Klose (Harvard '62) spoke with our group about the history and ideals of public broadcasting. After we took a tour including the studio of "All Things Considered" while it was on air, Kevin returned to host a reception for us. Barbara Bradley Haggerty, NPR correspondent on religion ("pretty interesting under this Administration," she told us) led us through the process of receiving an assignment, creating a story, and taking it to its final production. She described a typically open-ended assignment: "Barb, do something on marriage." For this special assignment story, she had the luxury of two weeks for reading up on the history, sociology, and evolution of marriage. She built her story around three generations of a Jewish American family from Detroit in which the Orthodox grandfather believed in traditional definitions of marriage-for-life, his daughter had divorced and was now in a new relationship, and his granddaughter had come out as a lesbian. Classmates challenged Haggerty and sought more information on the structure of the story, and were impressed by her skill and style. The visit confirmed that NPR is indeed a national treasure.
Friday evening, we followed Kirk Macdonald's advice and split up into smaller groups for dinner at the homes of Dickson and Reeves Carroll, Jim and Katherine White, Bob and Lucy Bremner, and Kent and Patti Ravenscroft. At the last minute they accommodated classmates who were to have gone to Ed Strohbehn's, after Ed had to cancel because he was on the DL after breaking his knee in a fall that week. We are grateful to these hosts for the intimacy of a long lingering evening with good food, wine, and warmth. Special "6Y2" frosted cookies were a hit in some locations. The small groups offered the chance both to spend time with old friends and to meet previously unknown classmates.
Saturday morning, Fred Starr brought his broad experience in academia and the global economy to the keynote event of the reunion - a panel "Inside Washington" featuring Yale '62 classmates in Washington Steffan Graae, retired DC superior Court judge on the political appointment of justices; Kent Hughes of the Wilson Center on the influence of think tanks on public policy; and David Scharff, psychoanalyst, on a private view of the public Washington. They were joined by Marc Lackrtiz, head of the Securities Services Association (Princeton '68, my brother's year, and my tennis partner) describing the process of lobbying in Washington; Bob Kaiser, Associate Managing Editor of the Washington Post (Yale '63) on the deterioration of news reporting apart from a few great newspapers; and Mike Haltzel (Yale '63 who began with Yale '62) speaking about his work as a senior senate staffer with Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) on Foreign Affairs.
Mike kicked off the session explaining his dismay at the increase in partisanship and acrimony between the parties over the past few years. He reminisced about the young congressman Lyndon Johnson saying to his mentor House Speaker Sam Rayburn, "The Republicans are our enemy," -- to which Rayburn had replied, "Lyndon, the Republicans are our opponents. The Senate is our enemy!" No longer do opponents across the aisle respect one another and meet on friendly terms after work.
Steffan Graae summarized the ongoing debate in Congress over judgeships as follows: "We know you want an independent judiciary, but how do you control these people?" Steffan argued strongly for a process in which judicial positions are selected rather than elected, so that the judiciary is firmly based on professional merits rather than political popularity.
Bob Kaiser spoke about the decline of much of print and television journalism. He said that the drive for profits and ratings has compromised the pursuit of presenting factual information in a fair manner in favor of unsubstantiated opinion. At his Washington Post, he said that Ben Bradlee during the Watergate era told reporters that they should forget about being objective because that itself depended on the subjectivity of the writer. The goal, he said is to be fair. The problem, Bob said, often is not so much in reporter bias as in the lack of facts. Much of journalism, including cable television, has switched "from reporting the news to blathering the news."
Marc Lackritz said that what good lobbyists do is to develop and sell good ideas, not partisan positions. It's no longer the case that Congress, lobbied on all sides, will get behind a position because a donor industry wants it. It has to make sense intellectually. He said that despite all the criticism and jokes about lobbyists, he really likes his work.
Kent Hughes reported that there are 1000 think tanks today where there were 100 ten years ago, with budgets now from a few hundred thousand to $100 million annually. Add to that the increasing voice and erratic input of internet blogs, and the battle for influence at Congressional hearings is ever more intense. Commonly, said Kent, a staffer lets a potential witness know, "The Chairman knows what the truth is," before hearings even begin.
Finally, I spoke of my experience in treating people in Washington. I moved there to work for the US Public Health Service during the Vietnam war, and over the next 30 years treated people from all levels of government, media, the military, and more recently information technology, with all of whom I've had the privilege of viewing complex public issues on opposing sides of the national debate through the lens of individual values. What these patients have in common is the struggle at the interface of work and family life, their demanding, increasingly fast-paced jobs putting a strain on marriage and family.
Classmates chimed in with an assortment of questions, which showed that they too were concerned about the operations and practices of the Federal Government. Fred Starr summarized the session well by noting that the panelists were agreed that things have never been so bad, but yet they all remained quite optimistic about the future of the United States.
Fun and Reminiscence
Saturday afternoon, Jim White hosted a walking tour of Georgetown followed by refreshments at his house. The guy knows his stuff and made the neighborhood come alive. Saturday evening, most of us convened at the Cosmos Club for more schmoozing, drinking and dancing to our kind of music (swing, smooth, and nothing amplified). Lee Bakunin feted the women with inspirational gifts; Jill Scharff, Patti Ravenscroft, Barbara Oliver, and Judy Hope entertained us with a rerun of the wives' song "Yale '62", joined by Dickson Carroll and Ellis Wisner, who also led the singing of wistful Yale songs and the waving of white handkerchiefs "For God, for country, and for Yale."
About half of those attending reconvened Sunday morning at the Cosmos Club for a parting brunch and to share opinions of the present day and memories of undergraduate life at Yale. It was my pleasure to pass the microphone as about ten classmates took the floor starting with Terry Croft, who eloquently expressed sadness and concern for the safety of judges, remembering his close friend, Judge Rowland Barnes, who recently was murdered in Atlanta. Ellis Wisner noted everyone's mortality and helped us remember our classmates who have passed away. Kirk MacDonald talked about the joy of attending Yale and how well the New Haven experience had prepared us to be leaders. Bill Boyer joined in expressing gratitude towards Yale and to our class. Bill Shipley hoped we would consider Reunions in widely varied locations including perhaps developing programs that would include helping others less fortunate than ourselves. Tony Dean expressed the somewhat liberal leaning of the group by saying that he was a lifelong Republican who was now dissatisfied. David Seigle told stories about practical jokes that he and his freshman year roommates, Fred Starr and Hoosh Nasr, pulled on each other. Doug Daetz and Bob Connery noted how they had come to Yale from the West without being sure what to expect but what a wonderful and formative experience it had been. Al Chambers thanked classmates for their participation in communicating with each other through the web site and Alumni Magazine and said he found classmates to be a far more likable group now than in earlier years. Barbara Oliver spoke for the women at the Reunion and Steve Buck, representing the Washington D.C. class community, said he remembered wondering why he would come to a hometown Reunion but had enjoyed every minute of the time together. Jonathan Ater, who came from Oregon, encouraged classmates to consider joining the second Mini Reunion of 2005 scheduled for Hong Kong in October. Kent Ravenscroft, one of my roommates, touched me greatly by remembering a few of my old interests in presenting me with a book of recently recovered lectures on Shakespeare by W.H. Auden in thanks for my efforts in organizing the Reunion, sharing with the group epithets written about us both when we were in high school together as witness to our long friendship. Steve Susman captured the good feeling of the morning by expressing his closeness to Yale. "After all," he quipped, "You don't realize how old you are until you come here and see your classmates."
Almost everyone joined a walking tour of the Embassy Row area in the bright sunshine and then we again went our separate ways. It was hard to say farewell. And it was good to be alive.
Many thanks to the committee:
Bob Bremner (and to Lucy for arranging the NPR tour)
And again to dinner hosts:
Reeves and Dickson Carroll
Kent and Patti Ravenscroft
Jim White and Catherine Hirsch
Bob and Lucy Bremner
(and to Ed Strohbehn and Heather Ross who were sidelined by injury)
Jill Scharff for Thursday evening's reception
And to our intrepid and cheerful administrator, Anna Innes, from my office.