Saturday, December 10, 1977

My man Al

Sam Smith, 1977 - My man Al has come through. Admittedly it took him twenty years, but when you think about it that's a pretty short gestation period for an idea in the mind of a politician. I always knew my faith in Al Velluci, mayor of the city of Cambridge, Mass., would prove justified. So when word began filtering south of Vellucci's latest campaign, my heart quickened.  This is It. And indeed it was. My man Al had become the first politician to make an issue of one of the most important and underdiscussed questions of our time: should citizens be allowed to exercise control over runaway scientific experimentation or does science have an unlimited right of eminent domain over our lives, our en vironment and our future?

Al Vellucci decided it was time for a little legislative oversight in Dr. Frankenstein's laboratories, or to be more exact, the laboratories of Harvard University and MIT where, as in a frighteningly large number of other places, research on the mutagenic monster of DNA was underway.
Al wasn't the only one concerned. Others, from public interest and environmental groups to scientists just as serious as those playing with the genes, had raised alarming questions about the research and its potential for unleashing new forms of life that we may not be able to understand or control until it is too late. This is big stuff. Just as big as the Bomb. And as Al himself put it: "What we did in this city council was to cause communities throughout the world to look into this kind of experimentation. I think the City of Cambridge should receive world honors, maybe the Nobel Prize."
What the city council did was to set up a citizen review panel which came up with the proposed restrictions on the research and which stated firmly, "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 said it more succintly: "We want to be damned sure the people of Cambridge won't be affected by anything that would crawl out of that laboratory."

Vellucci had tried to get a two year moratorium on the research, but the council only went along with a shorter stay, long enough for the review board to come up with its recommendations. The recommendations fell short of what some concerned about DNA research would have liked and Science magazine reporter Nicolas Wade quotes Cambridge councilor David Clem as saying, "I have a gut feeling that 10 to 15 years from now I am going to regret having worked toward a compromise on this issue, because I think we are stretching our limits of being able to respond in a civilized way to the fruits of knowledge. We are coming fat with all this knowledge, so fat and bloated we may not survive."

I had expected big things of Al, although saving the world was a bit be- yond my best hopes. You see, I have a vested interest in him. I helped to create him during my first experience with the random power of the media. He was, you might say, a mutant politician who crawled out of our media laboratory, and I and others had cheerily egged him on, anxious as we were as student journalists to continue our research into recombinant urban affairs.

It was not an unqualified success, judging from occasional reports I received from Cambridge during the sixties. For Al liked anti-war Harvard students as little as he likes Harvard gene researchers. The fact is, he didn't like Harvard all that much. That's how it all began. Twenty-one years ago I was a functionary in the news department of WHRB, the Harvard radio station. On the morning of May 9, the Harvard Crimson came out with a story that a Cambridge city councilor, name of Alfred Vellucci, had announced plans to introduce an order asking the city mana- ger to "confiscate" all of the university's lands because of the Harvard ad- ministration'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." As a moderating voice, the Crimson also quoted fellow councilor, lawyer Charles A. Watson, who said, "Not even the state, let alone the city, can take land away from an educational institution whose corporate franchise is as old as Harvard's."

Down at the radio station, we recognized a good interview when we saw one. A member of the news department was assigned the job of calling Councilor Vellucci and getting a story in time for the 11 p.m. "All the News" show.

He got an earful: "The citizens and taxpayers are sick and tired of supporting Harvard," said Vellucci. "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 depart- ments."

He added: "John Lund, commander of the local Sullivan Post, American Le- gion, 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 the response was electrifying. Student listeners began calling the station demanding to hear the full interview. It was not just the words; the Vellucci voice had a special quality that 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.

We responded to the demands. 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. We ran the whole interview at midnight and calls from those who tuned in during the middle of it were so numerous that we rah it again at one am. The next morning, the story was page one in the Boston Globe - culled from the WHRB interview — with a two column headline: Councillor Asks Setup Like Vatican DEMANDS HARVARD SECEDE FROM CITY

The Crimson had had the Vellucci story first, but in its stately way had missed the exploitation potential, settling for an editorial in which it commented: "We wonder whether Al understands that Harvard was chartered before the Common- wealth, and that there is some question which has the right of eminent domain over the other. The university would cherish an eighth House and while a Central Square lo- cation may have its disadvantages, we can only urge that the student council vote - perhaps five to four - that the Cambridge City Hall be seized."

It was WHRB's Vatican angle, however, that caught the imagination of Harvard's student body. Some of us, I suspect, also subconsiously recognized in Vellucci a man who, despite his attacks on students, was really waging war on a mutual enemy, the Harvard administration. We. all had grievances with it and it would be years before students learned to stand up to their cam- pus oppressors. 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 quiet but not the students. There was no march on city hall, though. It began the next night, as those things often did, with a peculiarly unrelated and insignificant act. During a drunken argument in the offices of the college humor magazine over the relative merits of prose and poetry, some- one threw a typewriter out of a window. The riot was on. Two thousand men of Harvard quickly gathered shouting alternatively, "Hang Vel- lucci," "Vellucci for Pope," and "We want Monaco." Beer cans and water-filled bags were tossed about. Riots were different then. Eddie Sullivan, the genial mayor of the city, showed up in his radio and siren- equipped 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 his tires.

Out of one of the dormitories a recording of Tchaikowdky's "1812 Overture" blared forth. The cops sent reinforcements to Al's home but no one strayed from the campus. With what the city would come to realize was his normal tactical brilliance, Al had succeeded in turning Harvard against it- self, just as he would twenty years later as Harvard prof debated Harvard prof on the DNA question. A few students were arrested, a few faced disciplinary action and by one am it was all over.

Those of us in the WHRB news department went to sleep content in the knowledge that in twenty-four hours we had helped create a significant media figure and a riot. Not a bad day's work for a few student journalists. Neither Vellucci nor the student media let the matter drop. Vellucci was back quickly with a proposal to have the city take away the liquor license of the Faculty Club, and the Crimson and the WHRB elevated the city hall to a major beat. For the rest of my time at Harvard, I faithfully covered city council meetings, relaying every juicy quote and snipe at Harvard that Vellucci and his cohorts could pro vide. My mentors at the press table were a trio of sardonic and knowledgable Irish- men from Boston's dailies. And they loved their sotte voce seminars tor the student journalists from WHRB and the Crimson during council meetings as much as we enjoyed attending them. The councillors were exceptionally solicitous, especially Al, who quickly recognized our symbiotic relationship. Mayor Eddie Sullivan gave me a ride in his Imperial and willingly took the time to talk whenever I had questions. Har vard educated lawyer Joseph Deguglielmo, who eschewed bifocals for two pairs of glasses which were stacked on his nose and forehead in the order required by the 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 making several thousand dollars more a year than his official salary. No maudlin concern over corruption but certainly an economic fac- tor to take into account.

I went down to Charles Watson's office for the moderate view. And aged, diminutive Hyman Pill smiled benignly at me when I went past his desk. It was a real Sesame Street council. And it was real Massachusetts legislature, the sort of place where a local leader during a dispute over a contract could turn to Pill and plead, "Look, we're all Christian gentlemen here." And Hyman could just rock back in his chair and smile. It was not all good, but most of what was bad was right out front. 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.

As I got to see more of city governments I came to realize that the city council of Cambridge was no worse than most and certainly less hypocritical. And you had to admire the flair. When the city failed to clean the streets in Al Vel lucci's district, he borrowed a large streetsweeper. and did it himself. 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 you could find covering the White House or Congress. For in a city, politicians are on their own; they are not actors and actresses performing the lines of speechwriters and bright young staffers. They have to make their own theater and much of the time it is better than anything you find on the con- trolled and contrived national stage.

I also learned that people like Al Vellucci are saying something about the way power is distributed in a city, that their anger is not the rantings of demogogues, but a hyperbolic extension of real concerns. I didn't fully appreciate it then, but I've seen enough of the tyranny and arrogance of large institutions in an ur- ban setting to understand now what Al was talking about. Perhaps I make too much of it, but you always do that with your first love. I lost my political virginity at the Cambridge city council and I can't imagine a better place for it to have happened. And it couldn't have worked out better, either. I helped Al. He helped me. That's politics. Now he's helping all of us face one of the toughest problems we've got, those things that might crawl out of the laboratory. Thanks, Al.