Your editor’s coverage of the Cambridge city council for the Harvard student radio station in the 1950s as one of the reasons he has never regarded politicians as role models. Here are some details of this experience.
Sam Smith – On a May morning, the Harvard Crimson came out with a story that Cambridge city councilor Alfred Vellucci had announced plans to introduce an order asking the city manager to “confiscate” all of the university’s lands because of the Harvard administration’s “lack of cooperation” in solving the city’s parking problems. Vellucci was quoted as saying that “I am going to fine every Harvard student who parks his car on the public street at night unless the university makes all its property available for public parking.” Down at the radio station, where I was news director, I assigned one of our reporters the job of calling Councilor Vellucci. He got an earful:
The citizens and taxpayers are sick and tired of supporting Harvard. The time has arrived when Cambridge should break away and let the state and federal government support the school. Our taxpayers are not able to do the job alone … Our police department has to rush to the university every time the students start one of their foolish riots … The fire department has to go in there on school fires. We have to put police officers on extra duty to handle the traffic situation after one of the football games … Let the university become a state of its own like the Vatican in Rome and pay for its own fire and police departments.
Vellucci added: “John Lund, commander of the local Sullivan Post, American Legion, has told me every veterans organization in the city will support my bill.” He went on like that for twenty minutes. We ran excerpts on the 11 p.m. news and student listeners began calling the station demanding to hear the full interview. It was not just the words; the Vellucci voice lent impetus to the message. It was the precise antithesis of a well-cultivated Harvard accent and even at its most irate had a buoyant quality tinged with the faintest hint of satire that in those amusement and issue-starved years of the fifties, tickled the student ear. These were not times when you worried about the impact of the media on events; there were no seminars on TV and violence, no breast-beating over whether the press covered a hostage situation correctly. There was, however, a lot of boredom and whatever else he might be, Al Vellucci was certainly not boring. I ran the whole interview at midnight and calls from those who tuned in during the middle of it were so numerous that I ran it again at one a.m. The next morning, the story was page one in the Boston Globe — culled from the WHRB interview — with a two column headline:
COUNCILOR ASKS SETUP LIKE VATICAN
DEMANDS HARVARD SECEDE FROM CITY
The Crimson had the Vellucci story first, but in its stately way had missed the exploitation potential. It was WHRB’s Vatican angle that caught the imagination of Harvard’s student body. Some of us, I suspect, also subconsciously recognized in Vellucci a man who, despite his attacks on students, was really waging war on a mutual enemy, the Harvard administration. It would still be some years before students learned to stand up to their campus oppressors and Vellucci was a prophetic voice, calling for rebellion not just by the citizens of Cambridge against Harvard, but, subliminally, by the students as well.
The Cambridge citizenry kept calm but not the students. It began, as those things often did, with a peculiarly unrelated and insignificant act the very next night. During a drunken argument in the offices of the college humor magazine over the relative merits of prose and poetry, someone (by some accounts Neil Sheehan, later a famed NY Times correspondent) threw a typewriter out of a window. The riot was on. Two thousand men of Harvard gathered shouting alternatively, “Hang Vellucci,” “Vellucci for Pope,” and “We want Monaco.” Beer cans and water-filled bags were tossed about. Eddie Sullivan, the mayor of the city, showed up in his radio and siren-equipped Chrysler Imperial and attempted to quell the disturbance. He failed to get the attention of the crowd, part of which was busy letting the air out of all four of his tires. From one of the dormitories blared a recording of Tchaikowsky’s 1812 Overture. The cops sent reinforcements to Al’s home but no one strayed from the campus.
The riot ended in typical fashion: once half the students had marched into Harvard Yard, its gates were closed and the ones not trapped inside counted their losses and retired to their rooms or to Cronin’s. Harvard, for a number of years, had actually staged a carefully controlled official disturbance. Each February the entire freshman class would gather in giant Memorial Hall for the Smoker, ostensibly a program of entertainment and relaxed drinking, but in reality a riot within four walls. Under the leadership of a suitably baccanalian master of ceremonies, such as Al Capp, the Smoker inevitably featured a singing group from a women’s college which would be rewarded with a barrage of pennies thrown on the stage. When the program was over, the beer would start to flow. Freshman and proctors, deans and students would drink together until brew covered the floor in large puddles.
With what the city would come to realize was his normal tactical brilliance, Al Vellucci had succeeded in turning Harvard against itself. A few students were arrested, a few faced disciplinary action and by one a.m. it was over. Those of us in the WHRB news department went to sleep content in the knowledge that in twenty-four hours we had created a celebrity and a riot. Not a bad day’s work for a few student journalists.
For the rest of my time at Harvard, Crimson reporter Blaise Pastore and I faithfully covered city council meetings, relaying every juicy quote and snipe at Harvard that Vellucci and his cohorts provided. Our mentors at the press table were a trio of sardonic and knowledgeable Irishmen from Boston’s dailies, who loved delivering their sotto voce lectures to a couple of Harvard students as much as we enjoyed hearing them. The councilors were solicitous, especially Al, who recognized our symbiotic relationship. Harvard educated lawyer Joseph Deguglielmo, eschewing bifocals for two pairs of glasses stacked on his nose and forehead in the order required at any particular moment, explained the workings of a city government with great patience, once commenting that he was uncertain how to vote on a police pay increase because he had to keep in mind that each cop was probably receiving, in goods and cash, several thousand dollars more a year than his official salary. It was literally the end of an era. While I was covering the council, James Michael Curley, the former mayor of adjoining Boston, passed away. I had heard the last hurrah.
Mayor Sullivan bore no grudges towards me for his flat tires and was always willing to talk politics whenever I ran into him. One evening
I met Eddie Sullivan after coming out of the movies. He was seated in his pale colored Chrysler Imperial listening to calls for the police radio. He waved to me and asked me to join him for a cup of coffee.
The Cambridge City Council was a real Massachusetts legislature, the sort of place where an Irish labor leader during a dispute over a contract could turn to councilor Hyman Pill and plead, “Look, we’re all Christian gentlemen here.” And Hyman just rocked back in his chair and smiled. It accepted the view that politics was not religion — neither salvation nor perfection was the goal. It was democracy — making the best of a confused and difficult situation. The members of the city council were ashamed of neither their beliefs nor of their compromises with them. The Cambridge city council was the best course I took at Harvard. I not only learned about city government but learned that it had a quality that would be unmatched by anything found later covering the White House or Congress.
City politicians were on their own; they were not actors and actresses performing the lines of speechwriters and bright young staffers. They had to make their own theater and often it was better than what you found on the controlled and contrived national stage. I would also learn that people like Al Vellucci were saying something about the way power is distributed in a city, that their anger was not the rantings of demagogues, but a hyperbolic extension of real concerns. And it reawakened in me an interest in politics that caused me, in violation of the gestalt of the fifties, to form and lead (as the pawn of a far more political friend, Al Friendly) the first student Humphrey for President club in the country.
It wasn’t until twenty years later that Vellucci made the national news. He was mayor now, and under his leadership the Cambridge city council had decided it was time to have a few safeguards against the mutagenic uncertainties of DNA research then underway at Harvard and MIT. The council passed restrictions after a heated debate with university researchers, arguing that “knowledge, whether for its own sake or for its potential benefits to humankind, cannot serve as a justification for introducing risks to the public unless an informed citizenry is willing to accept those risks.” Al, as usual, put it far more succinctly, “We want to be damned sure the people of Cambridge won’t be affected by anything that would crawl out of that laboratory.”