Al Gore for (Harvard) President?

What will Al Gore do if he loses the election? Chatterbox raises the question not because he thinks Gore will lose (in fact, it really is too close to call) but because Gore, alone among the four people running this year for president or vice president on a major party ticket, will really be up a tree. Bush, Cheney, and Lieberman each have a Plan B. If Bush loses, he’ll finish out his term as governor of Texas, which has two years to go. He might even run again for president. Dick Cheney will probably find some way to go back to Halliburton, where he used to be chairman. Lieberman will serve another six years in the Senate (assuming his concurrent re-election campaign succeeds, as everyone expects it will). Gore, however, will not only be out of a job but out of friends. He probably won’t be able to show his face in Washington, D.C., because his fellow Democrats will revile him for blowing an election in which he had, on paper, every conceivable advantage. (By comparison, the exiled Mike Dukakis will seem a beloved elder statesman. At least he lost to a quasi-incumbent!) Gore probably won’t want to spend much time in Tennessee because the state will probably have gone to Bush. In short, Gore will be in a midlife career crisis. What to do?

Chatterbox thinks Gore should become president of Harvard. As you may know, Neil Rudenstine, the current president, plans to be gone at the end of this school year. Today’s New York Times reports that Harvard is now clawing its way through about 500 nominations for a replacement. (The Harvard Crimson, which is probably better informed, puts the number at 400. Click here for the Crimson’s complete coverage.) Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, former National Institutes of Health Chief Harold Varmus, and even Bill and Hillary Clinton have been considered. With the exception of the last two, these all sound like reasonable choices. (Bill Clinton’s misadventures with Monica Lewinsky make it unthinkable that the guy would ever be given a job that puts him in close proximity to impressionable coeds.) Condoleezza Rice has also been mentioned but says she doesn’t want it.

None of these candidates seems as good a fit as Gore. For Harvard, it would be a chance to elevate its president to national prominence to a degree that it hasn’t enjoyed since the presidency of James Bryant Conant (1933-1953). Harvard would be getting an experienced fund-raiser (he could make the phone calls wherever he wanted!) who would accord the faculty more respect than they could reasonably expect from a fellow Ph.D. For Gore, it would be a chance to trade ideas with scientists and philosophers who’d be obliged at least to pretend to take him seriously. He could write books. He could wear fancy robes. He could keep an eye on Albert III, who’d no doubt end up going there.

Another advantage to picking Gore: If he were to be available, he’d be available immediately. This is important because the slowness of Harvard’s presidential search has already gummed up the search processes for several other universities (Princeton, Brown, Tufts), which have the misfortune to be looking for new presidents at the same time. Call it the Steven Spielberg Effect. Just as countless Hollywood productions were on hold a few months back while Spielberg decided which of several possible projects he would direct, so the other university searches are on hold while Harvard decides which of several possible presidents it will appoint. Selecting Gore could fix this traffic jam overnight.

Probably some would worry about Gore’s weak academic background–his middling grades as a Harvard undergraduate, the dilettantism of his graduate studies in law and religion. The vice president is no scholar by true academic standards. As a thinker and writer, he tends to be grandiose and sophomoric. But certainly, Gore’s intellectual abilities and his prose measure up to the modest standard set by other university presidents. The Harvard faculty might not respect him. But since when did the Harvard faculty respect any president? Many of those professors who would initially write Gore off as a complete boob would eventually be seduced by his glamour, his deference, and his sincere desire to learn. And Gore would hardly be a complete stranger to the Harvard administration: He was on the university’s board of overseers (i.e., trustees) from 1987 to 1993.

Chatterbox got so excited about this idea that he decided to ring up Gore’s old thesis adviser, Richard Neustadt, professor emeritus in Harvard’s government department. Neustadt was skeptical:

I have no idea as to the likelihood that he would be offered such a thing. Lord knows he’s intelligent enough. But it would be sort of a precedent-breaking thing if the Harvard Corporation [ie., the university’s governing board] actually thought about that. … No president of Harvard has come that directly out of elective public life, ever, that I know of.

Neustadt emphasized that while he thought Gore was good enough for Harvard, he wasn’t sure Harvard–or at least the Harvard presidency–was good enough for Gore:

[Harvard’s president] has to do a lot of public relations. He sits on at least 300 ad hoc committees deciding on tenure appointments on the faculty of arts and sciences and some other faculties. Half-day meetings! That must take at least a third of his time. Is that how somebody like Al Gore would want to spend his time? … My own guess is he’d find it pretty slow. Interesting around the edges, but slow.

Chatterbox thinks Neustadt is underestimating wildly Gore’s capacity for boredom. In any case, Chatterbox sincerely hopes that after Nov. 7, Gore won’t be available for the position.