Inside the Statehouse: Harvard president finds looks can be deceiving
by Steve Flowers
Unfortunately, my column had to go to press before the outcome of Tuesday’s election was known. I will discuss the election results next week. In the meantime, I would like to share with you two stories.

The first is about the presidency, which is relevant to this year’s election. The second is a very poignant story that occurred on the campus of Harvard University over a century ago.

Several weeks ago, I wrote a column many of you enjoyed about the success of small town boys in Alabama politics. It concluded with the fact that since 1946 Alabama has had 14 small town governors and only two city governors. Well, I can do better than that for presidents.

America has elected small town boys to the presidency overwhelmingly since 1948. A cursory look at the presidents over the past 60 years reveals that our U.S. Presidents were small town boys. Harry Truman was from Independence, Missouri. Dwight Eisenhower was from a small town in Kansas. Lyndon Johnson was from a small town in East Texas. Richard Nixon was from a small town in California. Jimmy Carter was from the small hamlet of Plains, Georgia. Ronald Reagan was from a small town in Illinois. George Bush Sr. was from a small place in Connecticut and his son, George W. Bush, calls Crawford, Texas home. Bill Clinton was from the small town of Hope, Arkansas. Only John F. Kennedy was from a big city. Boston was his home. That is nine small town presidents and one from the city. If you include in the count those who were elected two times it is 14 to 1.

Barack Obama’s place of origin is not easy to determine. However, it appears that he is from a sparsely populated place in Hawaii. In that case, it is 15 to 1 small town boys.

Mitt Romney is just as difficult. Is he from Detroit or the suburbs of the Motor City? If you give him to the suburbs, he is also small town.

One complimentary accolade that can be given to Alabama politicians is that they generally have not been pretentious. Indeed, they have tended to downplay their financial resources and they tend to like all people the same. This is probably because each person’s vote counts the same, rich or poor.

Unfortunately, this is not the case with all people. Allow me to share with you an interesting story told by the legendary Malcolm Forbes about 60 years ago.

“A lady in a faded gingham dress and her husband dressed in a threadbare suit, stepped off the train in Cambridge Massachusetts. They walked timidly without an appointment into the Harvard University President’s outer office. The secretary could tell in a moment that they were ‘country hicks’ that had no business at Harvard.

‘We want to see the President,’ the man said softly. ‘He’ll be busy all day,’ the secretary snapped. ‘We’ll wait,’ the lady replied. For hours the secretary ignored them, hoping that the couple would finally become discouraged and go away. However, they did not leave. The secretary became frustrated and finally decided to disturb the president, even though it was a chore that she always disliked. ‘Maybe if you see them for a few minutes, they will leave,’ she said to him.

He sighed in exasperation and nodded. Someone of his importance did not have the time to spend with them, but he detested gingham dresses and homespun suits cluttering up his outer office. The president with his stern face strutted toward the couple. The lady said to the president, ‘we had a son who attended Harvard for one year. He loved Harvard. He was happy here, but about a year ago, he was accidentally killed. My husband and I would like to erect a memorial to him, somewhere on campus.’

The president was not touched! He was somewhat shocked. ‘Madam,’ he said gruffly, ‘we cannot put up a statue for every person who attended Harvard and died. If we did, this place would look like a cemetery.’

‘Oh no,’ the lady explained quickly, ‘we don’t want to erect a statue. We thought we would like to give a building to Harvard.’ The president rolled his eyes. He glanced at the gingham dress and homespun suit, then exclaimed, ‘A building! Do you have any earthly idea how much a building costs? We have over seven and a half million dollars in the physical buildings here at Harvard.’

For a moment the lady was silent. The president was pleased. Maybe he could get rid of them now. The lady turned to her husband and said quietly, ‘Is that all it costs to start a university? Why don’t we just start our own?’

The president’s face wilted in confusion and bewilderment. Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Stanford got up and walked away, traveling to Palo Alto, California where they established the university that bears their name, Stanford University, as a memorial to their son!”

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in more than 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at
© 2012