Thursday, January 19, 2012

He Used to Be a Republican

Yesterday, a new time of life began for me.  The first of my contemporaries, and a very treasured friend and roommate, Howard Reiter, died after being treated for cancer over the past few years.  Howard was a distinguished political scientist, longtime chair of the political science department at the University of Connecticut, and a veteran analyst and commentator on American electoral politics.  Howard was wry, knowledgeable, eminently fair, and believed in the efficacy of some institutions the rest of us regard with skepticism, such as political parties.

Howard’s early years in the political sphere were spent in Republican territory.  When I first met him at Cornell, he was what was then described as a conservative.  He was a product of the then-famed Cornell government department with a renowned faculty that included Andrew Hacker, Allan Bloom, Walter Berns, Allan Sindler, and Clinton Rossiter.  When he did his graduate work at Harvard, his advisor was Seymour Martin Lipset, the doyen of electoral politics as a field of study.  Most of those named were somewhat conservative—Berns and Bloom left Cornell after the 1969 tumult.

Gradually, Howard moved toward a place that no longer exists: the left wing of the Republican Party.  He was highly involved in the Ripon Society, which prodded the GOP toward recalling its Lincolnian roots when it came to subjects such as race.  Eventually, he was so far removed from today’s Republicans that someone who knew him at Cornell heard him speak and asked, “Didn’t you used to be a Republican?”

Howard and I met in a slightly advanced Freshman English class at Cornell.  We apparently qualified for it based on our AP scores and were given an assistant professor as our teacher rather than the usual grad student instructor.  We hit it off based on mutual interests in all sorts of arcane politicians such as Thurlow Weed and John Bailey, Marx Brothers pictures—yes, we thought of starting a student appreciation society called the Young Marxists, which was scrapped for obvious reasons, and other byways of popular culture.  Howard kept his activity at a moderate level at The Cornell Daily Sun, where he wrote a regular column, while I spent half my life there. 

Probably our familiarity with and skepticism of political hacks led us to hold student government types who fit the description in total disdain and prompted our one joint column when the student body seemed set on turning the rascals out, “The Ax for the Hacks.”  We had gotten friendly enough to agree to room together when starting grad school and law school, respectively, at Harvard.  Surprisingly, the experience solidified our friendship—one of our only disputes was over whether to put up political posters featuring then-Senator Ken Keating (R-NY, and Howard’s choice) and a Judge Xavier Riccobono, from somewhere in New York City, whose poster I obtained and brought back mostly for laughs.

Howard went on to a wonderful career in academic political science, culminating in being president of the New England Political Science Association. He published many articles and a number of books, including Selecting the President, a far-sighted study benefitting from his immensely practicable yet still idealistic outlook.  This befitted someone who had first been exposed to politics as practiced in the old-time hardball manner by the Nassau County Republican Organization, which went through its A. Holly Patterson, Joe Carlino, and Joe Margiotta eras, ultimately giving New York State Alphonse D’Amato. 

Howard also was a visiting Fulbright professor at Uppsala University in Sweden and spent time as a visiting teacher in Estonia as well.  The U.S. Information Agency and other sponsors sent him as a lecturer on American politics to many countries, all of whom gained from his immensely knowledgeable comments and analysis.

We remained friends over the years and did not get together anywhere near often enough.  His visits to Washington for the American Political Science Association meetings prompted reunions and we always picked up right where we had left off.  He had known my wife Eileen from Cornell and in fact, was the luckless date and victim of one of her first cooking efforts: an attempt to grill kebabs using stew meat, when they both were interning in Washington for the summer.  Howard also was married at about the time we were exiting Cambridge, and always supported his wife Laura’s own career as a therapist at Trinity College, Hartford, and in her own private practice.

There was a quiet enthusiasm to Howard, despite a put-on attitude of world weariness.  When we roomed together, that interest manifested itself many times, once, I recall, when we decided to take in two of the Best Picture Oscar films of the early 50s that were being shown at a Boston theater at the unlikely hour of 3 A.M.: Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve

Academic resumes tend to be lengthy—filled with every scrap of paper written and every lunchtable discussion treated as a full-fledged panel. Howard’s is concise and has a short mention of articles of general interest in various publications, including the Times, the Nation, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the like. Looking through a number of them brought up online, I began to realize how active his mind was and how readily he produced tight, effective and wise commentary.

Despite rooming with me, he never had the slightest interest in sports. Only Howard, during his time at Notre Dame, his first teaching job, would have sauntered over past Touchdown Jesus to the stadium the day before a game, and tried to buy a ticket—“as an experiment,” he later told me, and learned that the game had been sold out months earlier.

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