I am a little older now, (turning 61 in March). There was a time when that age seemed beyond attainable and utterly ancient. And my story begins some forty plus years ago when I was a freshman at Boston University, in a city where my entire family came from; actually, the northern suburb of Chelsea. My Uncle Sam was a successful Harvard law school educated attorney and I thought I might follow in his footsteps. So I enrolled in a Philosophy/Political Science double major. I had migrated to the left of the political spectrum in deference to my parents who actually got to meet John Kennedy a few months before his death at an event in the White House. But I was not at 18, and won't be if I see 80, what one would call a deep thinker. I am persistent and I read every day.
As importantly, I like to read the left and the right to try to better understand both perspectives and the debate between them.
So first semester I gradually balanced out drinking with studying and reached all the way up to a C/B average. Second semester I buckled down and began to eat up the concepts in my books and spit them out with some alacrity. I had a seminar class in humanities that not only included a minority of freshman, but sophomores, juniors and even a smattering of seniors. It was taught by a large, really smart man who weaved lots of stories about his life and times into the teaching of the coursework. This was something new. I noticed as well that the students, virtually all of us, seemed more than a little over our heads in the discussions that he lead. I was more than dumb enough to find this inspiring and to want to know more in my newly acquired state of semi-serious student-hood. So I looked up his office hours and showed up the following week to find myself in line with a very few upper classmen. I asked him to enlarge upon a couple subjects he covered in class and found myself returning again and even again because the conversation was inspiring.
I looked him up of course and found that William Bennett had a JD from Harvard and a PhD from the University of Texas that had been bestowed upon him by the Chair of its Philosophy Department and current President of BU; John Silber. William Bennett was someone special in 1974 and followed his academic career with a career some of you may know a little about, running the National Humanities Center, having been appointed Secretary of Education by Ronald Reagan and Drug Czar, formally known as Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy by President George H.W. Bush. On Thursday he concluded a 12 year run as Host of "Morning in America," a radio show on conservative Salem Broadcasting network that I happen to listen to some mornings on the way to work.
At the conclusion of my sophomore year I felt it necessary/desirable to find some kind of a legal internship where I could learn something more directly about the law. I had a fascination for Washington and though BU lacked an internship program signed up to spend the summer as a DC political intern through a program at Goucher College. I landed by chance at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a public interest law firm with an internship program that included interns from Yale, Penn, Michigan and UCLA law schools. I, as the only undergraduate was placed on the third floor with the other interns behind my own old wooden desk under the tutelage of Herbert Semmel who was investigating the relationship between the elderly and long term care before it was covered by the Federal government. I learned quickly that the kids to my right and left were well beyond bright and that I had to work my tail off if I wanted to make a meaningful contribution, small as it may be, to the work of this place, or just to almost keep up. I became Herb's legs and visited a number of Federal model programs where doctors, nurses, social workers and others were trying to take care of the elderly in lieu of proper Federal programs. I got to know the new House Select Committee on Aging and became fast friends with its Minority Staff Director who was looking into many of the same things as I. The Minority was run by Congressman John Heinz and the Majority by Congressman Claude Pepper. I created a lot of information to go with the travel vouchers that took me to Pennsylvania, New York and even Connecticut. I did some telephone based interviews with sites on the West Coast and every time I said I represented the Center for Law and Social Policy they assumed I was a lawyer.
On my second week there I returned from lunch one day to find a man sitting on my desk talking to the interns about a case I knew nothing about. He was Kenneth Donaldson, the case was Donaldson v. O'Conner, which the Center had won that day as a result of its argument before the Supreme Court. Donaldson was finally free after being incarcerated for years in a mental hospital as a non-violent patient with no right to leave. The Center was one of a number of institutions that opened the doors of mental hospitals to release those who were non-violent back into the community. Unfortunately some forty plus years later our two parties have not been able to work together to create an adequate after-care program that relieves society of the tragedy of homelessness and establishes a treatment regimen that helps to heal millions of lost souls.
I dug deep enough to provide Herb with much of the information he needed and he asked if I could try to convince my college to let me stay another semester. Let's face it; I was free and sincerely dedicated help. I did some research and made some calls and found out while BU lacked a Washington internship they did give credits for Directed Study that was supervised by a professor. But it was usually for one course a semester. I wanted to carry a full semester and get credit in DC. I figured I needed a professor with clout who I also happened to have some experience with. I had another incredible philosophy professor, Alasdair McIntyre as my advisor, but figured I needed someone with a broader tolerance for student discovery who might see the value in this legal internship. That made William Bennett my best chance. I talked to him by phone and sent him letters of support from Herb and Elliot Stern, Minority Staff Director of the House Select Committee on Aging and got him to agree to see me and entertain the idea. We discussed it and he promoted it with the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts who ultimately approved it as written even though she had some issues with the 16 credit full academic load I would be assigned for my work with Bill Bennett as my advisor.
In the fall I went one day with Herb to the Capital and listened as he testified before the House Select Committee on Aging. At the beginning of his testimony he introduced his assistant to members of the Committee, one Larry Snider a student from Boston University. It's more than forty years later and while I never became a lawyer I got involved and learned an enormous amount from my time in Washington, my internship with Goucher and most importantly my short but meaningful relationship with my Direct Study advisor William J. Bennett.
What these experiences taught me is that we have to communicate with both the left and the right, Republican and Democrat, to develop the understanding necessary to generate the legislation our country so desperately needs to keep us safe and to promote the health and welfare of our citizens and the process for others, not so unlike ourselves, to find their way legally to an America built on freedom and opportunity for all. I wish Bill well as he goes on to do more to define and support conservative American values and fight more battles. Even those I happen to disagree with.