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A Mirror Up To the Original Ferris Bueller

By Edward McNally
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Movie director John Hughes and I grew up on the same street in our home town of Northbrook, Ill. We both graduated from Glenbrook North, the high school where he filmed scenes from "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "The Breakfast Club," where his mom worked and two sets of our sisters were classmates. Because for years I was relentlessly pursued by a remarkably humorless Glenbrook dean about attendance, pranks and off-campus excursions -- and because my best friend was in fact named Buehler -- I've spent an inordinate amount of my life being unfairly accused of serving among the inspirations for Ferris Bueller.

But practicing law in Washington -- a town where Vice President Al Gore faced cynicism not only for claiming to have invented the Internet, but also for claiming to have been the role model for Ryan O'Neal's character in the movie "Love Story" -- invites considerable caution. And our 15-year-old Marguerite reminds us that the real Ferris (Matthew Broderick) actually grew up to marry Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker).

That said, I'll admit that Ferris-ian high jinks were the everyday stuff of our boyhood lives. Ferris clocked in at nine absences his final high school semester. My own was a breathtaking 27. That might explain the dean's pursuit. The key was, from the time I entered high school, all sick notes from our mom were actually penned by our sister Sheila. Even the real ones.

Years later, that same dean caught our kid brothers bringing in actual notes from our actual mother, and busted them because he didn't recognize the handwriting. Rookie mistake.

For one of those Chicago adventures, we secretly borrowed a car almost as ridiculously conspicuous as the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT in the movie: my dad's purple Cadillac El Dorado (yes, purple). Put an extra 113 miles on the odometer. Hoping to erase that telltale mileage, we raised the back on a pair of jacks and ran the car in reverse. The Caddy did not fly backward into a ravine, as in the film. What it did do is quickly take off a clean 10,000 miles. Oops. (Yes, you bet he noticed.)

Whether or not we inspired Ferris, there's no doubt his Day Off in 1986 left a lasting legacy for me and many others. Some trial lawyers attempt to channel "The Art of War." Or lessons from the life of Genghis Khan. But the Tao of Ferris has its own wisdom. Hughes had Ferris talk directly to the camera. To us. He says, deal with your fear. Believe in yourself. Make sick days count. And: Do you realize that if we played by the rules, right now we'd be in gym?

In my service as a federal prosecutor and as a defense attorney, one key lesson from Ferris is his repeated message to his despondent buddy Cameron. Your current situation doesn't have to be your fate. There's always another way.

In high school we gained admission to a sold-out improv performance at Chicago's Second City by claiming status as an advance crew for Kirk Douglas, then a major star who the papers said was in town filming. Pranking a comedy club seemed fair game. In the legendary scene where he tries to fake two friends into a fully booked restaurant, Ferris neglects to check the well-known name he borrows from the reservations list. "You're Abe Froman?" the snooty maitre d' huffs at 18-year-old Ferris. "That's me," Ferris insists. "Abe Froman?" scoffs the maitre d'. "The 'Sausage King of Chicago?' "

But Ferris is fearless. Doesn't back down. And is seated with an apology.

Ferris's lessons have bailed me out again and again over the years. When his high school class of 1986 finished college in 1990, Barbara Bush was confronted with what proved to be the most controversial address of her career. A graduation speech at Wellesley College. Some had objected to her status as merely a wife and mother.

She won the crowd with her powerful message about mermaids and CEOs, about diversity and choice. A presidential speechwriter at the time, I owed my minor contribution to Ferris. The speech needed humor, and maybe a touch of hip relevance. In urging young Americans to be a friend first, a sister or a brother first, a daughter or a son first, Mrs. Bush invoked Ferris: "Life moves pretty fast. If ya don't stop and look around once in a while, ya gonna miss it!"

The crowd roared. And Mrs. Bush ad-libbed, perfectly: "I'm not gonna tell [the president] you clapped more for Ferris than you did for George."

John Hughes knew that life moves pretty fast. And as with his films, his devotion to his family and his death at 59 last week serve as poignant reminders of that. For both teens and their parents, he helped crack the code on the exuberance and desperation of teen angst.

And while many say Hughes belonged to the '80s, his work remains today remarkably accessible to multiple generations. Our daughter found "Sixteen Candles" on her own, and is an aficionado. Our dad attended high school in the '40s, but is still slain every time dweeb dean Ed Rooney sees Ferris's girlfriend Sloane kiss Ferris, disguised as her father: "So that's how it is, in their family." Dad doesn't know we, too, borrowed his hat and glasses to impersonate him.

In creating his everyman heroes, Hughes makes clear his ultimate faith in youth. In "The Breakfast Club" his other iconic dean, the drill sergeant-like Richard Vernon, fears: "Someday these kids are gonna be running the country. This is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night."

Mr. Vernon was wrong. Today those kids are doing a brilliant job. And many of them also remember the lessons of Ferris Bueller and John Hughes. Here's but one example.

In my practice today, when representing those involved in government investigations, often the single most important goal to the client is to protect his anonymity. But while the law guarantees grand jury confidentiality, the doors around the courthouse are often clogged with camera crews recording every coming and going.

Over the years we've used side doors, back entrances and clients disguised as just another gray-suited lawyer. But none of those techniques can compete with a deft trick borrowed from Ferris Bueller.

On March 10, 1998, the van belonging to the office of Ken Starr, the independent counsel investigating President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky controversy, pulled up to the D.C. courthouse. Out stepped two prosecutors and an FBI agent, well known to the media gaggle camped out there. Next came Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer, there to testify about her alleged 1993 Oval Office encounter with the president. The media also knew and expected her.

But there was a new face. Tall young man in a coat and tie, sporting earrings in each ear. The camera crews swooped, shouting and demanding: Who are you?

The New York Times, apparently lacking any anonymous sources who attended high school in the '80s, reported it on the front page of the next day's paper. Straight and without irony:

Mrs. Willey "was accompanied by her son, John Patrick Willey, 25, who cryptically identified himself as 'the Sausage King of Chicago.' "

Then the Times delivered the clincher: "He did not elaborate."

Edward McNally, 53, a trial lawyer in private practice in New York and Washington, was a presidential speechwriter from 1989 to 1991, and was senior associate counsel to the president from 2001 to 2005.

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