There was certainly something different about Angelo Bartlett Giamatti.
He was flip, funny, iconoclastic. He was a sports nut. He used four-letter words. He was 36. And he was, well, ethic.
Not exactly what you'd have in mind for the president of Yale University.
But they were hip, forward thinking, open-minded, this governing board of trustees, the Yale Corporation.
So on Dec. 20, 1977, Angelo Bartlett Giamatti was elected the 19th president of Yale University.
He was cool about it.
"The only thing I ever wanted to be president of was the American League," he had said.
"I was doing exactly what I had always aspired to do. Be an English teacher at Yale."
It worked. Glowing reports were filed all across the country as editorials praised the courageous and imaginative choice of this irreverent, boisterous, youthful Italian-American president.
But then suddenly he was actually president of Yale. He didn't look like one or act or talk like one. But he wasn't fazed.
"The fact that one does not look or sound like one's distinguished predecessors does not make one catatonic," he said.
But recently, after all the fanfare, the Yale Daily News wrote about him in less than flattering terms. They had taken a second look. What had the Yale Corporation done? They had appointed a man as president of Yale who was flip, funny, iconoclastic and he was only 39.
"When one is president," says Giamatti, only slightly humbled, "one has to regard one's personality traits as defects.
"That's what happens," he says, "when you take a private style and institutionalize it. There's no way to win when you're being criticized for the same traits that were the very reason you were chosen in the first place."
He shrugs, the prisoner of his own style, and laughs. "So I figure you forget it."
Giamatti is gregarious and casual. He is a combination of bombastic Italian and proper New England WASP from his mother's side. "I'm somewhere a Bartlett and a Giamatti," he says. Then winces "I wouldn't have said that if you asked. But I did say that, didn't I?"
He uses his hands when he talks, is quick with a comeback, is self-effacing without being humble, is ready to play, and seems to have no real need for self-aggrandizement. He has the relaxed air of somebody who has done a lot of serious hanging out in his life and has profited by it.
He looks older than his 40 years; there are a lot of gray hairs but he doesn't seem to be particularly concerned about his recent birthday. "Compared to the impact of my new responsibilities the idea of being 40 doesn't strike me at all," he says.
With the assumption of his new mantle of power and with the passing into his 41st year, Giamatti has taken on the air of a don, a man of respect.
And with his dedicated public relations man, Stanley Flink, at his side, briefcase in hand, the perfect consiglieri , one could almost close one's eyes and hear him being addressed as "Don" Giamatti.
Medieval and Renaissance literature is his field. Spencer and Dante are his favorites, Spencer's "Faerie Queen" the poem he likes the best.
His academic credentials are impeccable. His father was a professor of Italian at Mt. Holyoke. He grew up talking about "The Divine Comedy" over dinner. He went to Andover, then Yale graduated magna cum laude, got his PhD, taught at Princeton and finally ended up at Yale, where, since 1971, he has been a full professor. He has published several books and essays, he has written about sports for Harper's magazine, he has performed in local theater productions and he has just had his 40th birthday.
If you didn't know Giamatti was the president of Yale, if it weren't for his three-piece gray suits ("I had this before I got to be president," he laughs a bit defensively) and if he didn't have a rather renaissance-inspired goatee, you might well take him for a nightclub owner, or maybe even a sports announcer.
"My brief career as a sportwriter for Harper's magazine," he says, "was not unrelated to what I was doing at Yale. Somehow it seemed to be that one was leaving one's preserve, but there is no necessary disconnection between literature and life. Sports really is about a lot of things I talk about a class.
"Sports is about releasing energy," he says, "as is language. In Spenser it seems that one of the fundamental threads has to do with shaping up yourself and having a coherent relationship with society. Insofar as one has respect for the language one has respect for the self."
He stops talking, his rapid-fire outbursts quieted for a moment as he reviews what he has just said.
"This may be," he says wryly, "an overlanguaged view of the universe."
Overlanguaged maybe, but it is Giamatti's sensitivity to language, to style and substance, that gives him a special perception about people.
For instance, when asked why he feels President Carter is not as effective a speaker as president as he was as a candidate his analysis is particularly apt.
"The junctures don't receive the inflection, the punch," he says. "In a sense style is substance and with Carter there's a gap tha widens there. There's a theatrical dimension that's absent. Carter's speech is out of synch. It's as if it were dubbed."
Giamatti is sympathetic with Carter's problem, however, and likens it ruefully to what is happening to him as president of Yale, where he says one is hesitant to inflict one's own personal style on the institution.
"Before Carter became president," he says, "he had a rhythm that was the best of the Baptist biblical energy. He would let it out with the reins and then pull it in."
It was Giamatti's interest in language, in theater, that brought him to study drama at Yale where he met Toni, his wife of 18 years (they have three children). "I've always been interested in the fundamental way that actors and athletes are alike," he says. "They both have to restrain their energies in order to shape them, then release them for a purpose.
"It's a gathering in of self, not to retreat but to focus. It's the same thing as trying to make an idea palpable. And that's the thing that attracted me to the poets I love."
He stops once again to review this latest barrage of words. "I don't want to come across as a cluck," he says finally, "but that's the way it is.
"What I'm trying to say is, that finally the only way to make sense of things is words. Otherwise you would have to reach out and touch people every time you wanted to get something across and there are a lot of people who wouldn't like that too much."
He smiles, then adds with total non-chalance, "This is all stuff I made up when I was teaching."
Being named president of Yale was pretty much of a shock to Giamatti. "I kept reading about it and kept seeing my name on various lists," he says. "But there was no overwhelming evidence that I was his (preceding president Kingman Brewster Jr.'s) first choice. It was neither my ambition nor my choice and I certainly wasn't sitting passively in the corner waiting for the phone to ring."
But ring it did and Giamatti was thrust into the leadership of a multimillion dollar corporation. "Frankly," he says, ("I do say frankly a lot, I guess it's because I really mean it") "frankly it occured over a weekend and there it was.At one moment you're doing things in English and humanities, all of a sudden you're looking at biophysics and biochemistry. The thing you miss not immediately is teaching," he says. "That's very glamorous, though. But I was really stimulated by the students. So far me that was the culture shocks."
Giamatti follows in the controversial though illustrious footsteps of Brewster, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James. Giamatti and his wife recently spent four days in London conferring with his predecessor.
The two could hardly be further apart in style, perhaps, too, in substance. For one thing, Brewster made his mark in the 60's as a highly political president and because of his politics reportedly lost many potential endowment gifts to the college.
Giamatti, the English professor, seems far more of a pragmatist, perhaps as much a sign of his day as of his personality. He is also more or less apolitical and is registered, he says, as an Independent.
"My focus," he says, "is fundamentally academic. Any educational institution that wants to have an impact on the larger society does so because of its strengths. In this case ours are academic. I don't see Yale as a sanctuary but a tributary to society. One's response to the question of politics is gauged by that perspective and the fundamental obligation to teach.
"You don't perform," he says, "until you meet the obligation."
Giamatti is aware and clearly sensitive to the critism that to be purely academic is to be out of the mainstream of society.
"I know that attitude about academics," he says. "But the fundamental sense of teaching is an act. You have to make choices to effectively communicate what one believes. You finally teach or communicate as much by how you behave as what you say. To view this as passive is theoretically wrong. To view that as a disconnected or retired activity, as peripheral or voyeuristic is wrong."
Clearly he is not nor does he plan to be passive peripheral or voyeuristic as president of Yale. For one thing, he's got too much to do. Like worry about money.
"In 15 years," he says. "Yale will be more expensive, there will be one million fewer 18-year-olds, the capacity to place PhDs will be rarer, the young faculty is increasingly indespair. But we cannot retreat into a seige mentality."
But he does say that because tuitions are rising at the same rate as inflation and that professors' salaries are not, because the cost of heating the dormitories and classroom is now exorbitant and continues to climb, there will have to be cuts in certain programs. What, he doesn't know yet.
"First," he says, "I have to find out what the hell I'm supposed to be doing.
"We've got to act from our strengths," he says. "Ohhhhh," he moans. "That sounds like a terrible cliche. But you decide that in some sense you are part of the culture. This sounds grandiose but goddammit we've got to understand that these people are going out of here and we've got to make the resources."
Yale, he believes, has two main strengths. "Really believing that private education has to be for the public trust. You can translate that into 'Yale trains leaders,' but we are training souls and citizens.
"The second strength is our human resources. The junior faculty is the lifeblood of the university, and we've got to keep them coming in."
The ideal student for Giamatti is someone who has a diversify of interests. Someone who will exploit the university for his own good. He finds today's students are different is several areas. For some, he says, the facility with language is not superb ("We have a freshman writing course we wouldn't dare call remedial," he says with a laugh). Also, the students sense most keenly the financial sacrifice to get them there. This hones unhappy things," he says, "like vacationalism. They don't want to engage in a spectrum."
For this reason Giamatti wants to keep in touch with the students and the only way he sees himself doing that is to continue to teach. "I plan to continue teaching Freshman English 15," he says. "I have to be nourished."
He also has an ulterior motive. He doesn't want to get rusty in his field. "It is isn't the trustees one worries about," he says. "It's one colleagues."
Shortly after the interview he is going to speak to the Tudor and Stuart Club at Johns Hopkins University and already he is getting nervous.
He isn't the slightest bit nervous about meetings with all the distinguished Yale alumni in Washington, including Cy Vance. But the Tudor and Stuart Club: "I'm dreading the question period," he says.
A Bartlett Giamatti hasn't really thought about how long he plans to remain in his new job. He hasn't really had time yet to find out what it's all about. But one thing he knows. It won't be any 25 years as has been suggested.
"Christ," says the distinguished Renaissance poetry scholdar, appalled. "I can't do anything for 25 years." "But you really have a sense that this place has been there for 278 years. And are you going to screw it up?"