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October 22, 1998

An interview with Neil Rudenstine
Reg Tweedy talks with Harvard’s president about the university’s direction

Sometimes they ask me — the people who ask me things, sometimes — how I get the closer-than-God, behind-the-scenes … whatever I get.

Interviews. That’s what I get. Interviews. With starlets, gambling kingpins, horse trainers and the like. (The interview with Eddie Arcaro remains the most often asked about.) Usually the story of how I secure an interview is every bit as interesting as the interview itself.

This is no exception. Ever since arriving in the States, I’d been wanting to interview Neil Rudenstine, the president of Harvard University, the king of American academia and (from what they tell me) no mean fry-cook either. But as my gift boxes of kippers continued to be sent back unopened, I despaired of ever grilling the legendary kickboxer.

But all that changed when I drew a jack to an inside straight at the weekly journalists’ poker game and found Newsweek correspondent Michael Isikoff pleading with me not to take his pacemaker. He still owed Matt Drudge nearly $20,000 from their wager on last year’s America’s Cup, so cash was not an option. How was he to pay?

All was resolved when I learned that Isikoff had secured an interview with Rudenstine. Two weeks later, on a chilly Monday morning, it was I who sat in the oak-paneled office of Harvard’s president, waiting to interview him for the Weekly Week.

Nearly an hour late, Rudenstine finally dashed in looking flustered and confused. He slammed the door behind him and stood panting against the wall. Clad in a dark brown trenchcoat and wearing a strange magenta wig, he seemed out of sorts, and when he withdrew a small knife from his left boot and began cutting down all the curtains — "in case we need to leave in a hurry" — I suggested that it perhaps would be more convenient if we conducted the interview another time.

"No!" he shouted, and dropped to the floor, his hands over his head. I assured him that I was more than happy to conduct the interview then and there, and eventually helped him to his feet. "I’ll be fine," he assured me as he got up. "Just give me a minute."

He proceeded to check every inch of the room for "suspicious markings" and asked this interviewer for three separate proofs of identification. After I had convinced him that I was, in fact, Reg Tweedy (would that it were always so difficult), he began to brush his chair with a strange-smelling rag which, he assured me, was "only a disinfectant."

Finally, he sat down. He took out a tin of sardines and what looked like a small amount of plastic explosives. I decided to begin the interview.

 

Weekly Week: First of all, I’d just like to thank you for agreeing to talk to us. It’s reassuring to know that the president of a college such as Harvard is so accessible.

Rudenstine: [Startled] Harvard?!?

Yes sir: Harvard. In Cambridge.

Oh, right. Sorry, it’s just been one of those mornings. [Long pause. Squints] Did you ever work for the Massad?

No sir. If we could just talk about Harvard …

Right. [Another long pause] Harvard. Harvard … University. [Long pause] Sure. We can talk about that. Why the hell not. Well, what this place needs is a few new departments. Give us some size. Best college in the land. Rival … what’s the name of that place with all the big arches?

Oxford?

No, no — where they had all those jugglers … Damn it …

Sir …

[Mumbling] They used to call the first-years "serfs."

You mentioned new departments …

[Startled] What?

Sir, the new departments … Harvard University … 1998?

Oh, right. 1998. Yes, new departments. Diversity, you know.

Well, it’s interesting you say that, because a lot of students feel colleges today are trying to provide too many departments. They feel that it’s sacrificing depth for breadth.

They do?

Yes. They feel that we need to concentrate on only a few departments instead of trying to provide something for everyone.

Really? [Long pause] Do you have any of their names?

Uh, no …

Because if there’s one thing that will not be tolerated in this regime, it’s malcontents.

I’m sorry?

You people have got to learn to respect your commanding officers. No more toeing the line. No more insubordination.

Are you saying that you’re going to punish people who disagree with you?

Let’s just say that I don’t forget my enemies.

But sir, isn’t that sort of attitude a bit anti-intellectual?

[Irritated] I’m not here to quibble over semantics.

But surely if you punish …

Next question.

But sir …

[Angry] I said next question. Do you want to be the first person to make The List?

No sir. Okay, um, what do you think of a core curriculum?

Not much.

Do you mean you don’t think it’s a good idea, or …

I mean I haven’t thought about much. Why, what do you think about it?

Well, if you really want to know, I think a lot of students leave here lacking a lot of basic knowledge.

Hmm. Like knife fighting?

Well, no, not exactly. I was thinking more of world history …

Well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you there. If there’s one thing I learned in Da Nang it was that the dialectic will eventually account for the ignorance of the lumpenproletariat.

I see. [Pause] So you oppose a core curriculum?

I oppose any rhetoric that can’t account for the possibility of its own unraveling.

Is that a yes?

I don’t think I’m prepared to reduce it to those terms.

You mentioned Vietnam earlier …

[Angry] Who told you that?

Well sir, you just said …

[Eyes narrowed] Listen here, son, I think we both know what you’re trying to do.

We do?

Double blind. Flush out the spooks. Strangle ‘em with their own piano wire, so to speak.

I have no idea what you’re talking about…

I know the routine. No food. No water. No sleep. Sensory deprivation. Start hallucinating maybe. Then, bam — hit ‘em with all the questions. "Where did you find an entrance? What agency do you report to? Where did you get the compound bow of human bones?" It’s an old game, son.

I really have no idea what you’re talking about …

Charlie used to try it all the time. I swear, kid, cross me now, you’ll be the first to go when the revolution comes.

The revolution?

The people of this city are tired of academic oppression. Their time will come.

What do you mean by "academic oppression?"

Come on! Look around! What do you see? Bookstores. Coffee shops. Cafes. Universities. I mean, do you have any idea what the ration of bookstores to strip clubs is in Cambridge?

No. Do you?

Let’s just say I’ve done some research. And I know that it’s getting harder and harder for an honest, entrepreneuring young pornographer to make it in this town.

I don’t think I know what you mean …

No, you wouldn’t. [Long pause. Moving closer and whispering] I killed Laura Palmer.

[Startled] What?!

Ha-ha, nothing. Nothing at all.

What did you say?

[Whispering again] The dwarf in the little room told me to do it.

Sir, are you all right?

Sure, sure, I’m fine. [Pause] Actually, excuse me for a moment.

(At this point President Rudenstine disappeared into my bathroom. He returned several minutes later, looking visibly refreshed. Upon close inspection, I noticed that he was wearing women’s stockings.)

Where were we?

Well, we were talking about the core curriculum. Sort of.

I see. [Long pause] Well, you know, the thing about me is that I’ve got a tremendous penis.

Really?

Yeah: it’s just … it’s huge. I don’t know what else to say.

Going back to what you’d said about academic oppression …

I mean, it frightens people, you know.

Uh-huh.

Really, it’s just … It’s just really, really big.

That’s … interesting.

Well, I don’t know why I brought that up.

You were saying that you thought there were too many bookstores here.

I just thought people might like to know their president is, you know, hung like a horse.

Thank you.

No problem.

So do you favor getting rid of some of these bookstores?

I’ll tell you what I’d like to get rid of ... these singing groups.

Really?

I hear that there’s a three to one ratio between students and singing groups on this college. Three to one! Jesus, what if we made some of those singers dig trenches or something. Give ‘em something constructive to do with their time. Get ‘em out there bustin’ rocks.

Well, I doubt people would try if they had to do manual labor to be part of one of those groups.

So make tryouts mandatory. Like they used to have under ... what was that guy’s name … with the big farms and the hat … Stalin. Yeah, Stalin. I bet he didn’t tolerate a lot of singing when he was around.

That sounds sort of fascist, sir.

It does?

Well, comparing yourself with Stalin …

Well, I mean, I’m not a big fan of Stalin or anything. He wasn’t my main influence in life.

Who were they?

Oh, the usual people. My parents, Gandhi, Houdini, Howard Hughes ...

How was Houdini an influence on your life?

Did you know he used to hide things in his rectum?

Well, no, I wasn’t aware …

Brilliant, brilliant man.

How about Howard Hughes?

I mean, can you imagine how much fun he would have been at a dinner party?

Um.

Of course it’s all old hat by now. But rectal magic was pretty cutting edge back then.

And this influenced you?

Sure, sure. I remember when I was younger, a couple of friends of mine and I decided it’d be really fun to try and make some money smuggling heroin over here from Turkey. So, you know, we went over there — never been out of the U.S., and all, you know, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — and spent all of the money our parents had given us to live there on heroin.

Uh-hum.

Stuff was awful — black tar, some of the worst smack you’d ever want to do. But you know, we were young and all … Anyway, that’s how we got it back into the states — the old Houdini bit.

What’d you do with it once you got it back over here?

Oh, we sold it around school. Made a few bucks. That’s how I met my wife, you know. She wanted to score a little H and some guy told her I was a big mover on campus, and you know, things just went from there. Those were the days.

So do you condone drug use among students?

Well son, times have changed. You just never know what goes into the stuff you get these days. It’s not always worth the risk anymore. [Pause] I guess.

Well, thank you, sir, I think that about concludes this interview.

Really? [Long pause] Well, I think it went pretty well.

Um, yes sir.

Hey, can I ask you a question?

Sure, sure.

Do the kids today still listen to Quarterflash?

Uh ... yes.

Rockin’ good news.

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