The Autobiography of Theodore M. Hesburgh

By Theodore M. Hesburgh with Jerry Reedy

Doubleday. 331 pp. $21.95

The Rev. Theodore Martin Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, enjoyed his first 15 minutes of public celebrity by deftly removing the legendary Frank Leahy as coach of "the Fighting Irish." That was just the beginning. Clearly, the man is a wonder-worker, a Catholic version of Averell Harriman or George Ball -- the man popes and presidents call upon when things get stuck.

With 14 presidential appointments to his credit and the "Guinness Book of Records" title for the most honorary degrees, he seems never to have had the offer of a job he could refuse. (Well, almost: When Richard Nixon asked him in 1969 to head up the poverty program, he did turn him down.) "I cannot remember a time," he reports, "when I did not have a dozen jobs to do at the same time." You name it -- church reform, the civil rights movement, Peace Corps, the student revolution of the 1960s, post-Vietnam amnesty, nuclear disarmament, immigration and refugee reform -- and the indefatigable "Father Ted" has been there at the start of things.

The mystery of Theodore Hesburgh's career, by any measure one of the most distinguished of any American's in this century, is not much illuminated by this memoir. Needless to say, he had better things to do than write it himself ("I did not relish the thought of spending most of whatever years the Good Lord may still grant me buried in the footnotes of the past"); someone else, the unidentified Jerry Reedy, put this book together out of some oral history and a few interviews that Hesburgh taped for the Notre Dame archives. The result is thin. Those who are looking for the inner, private Hesburgh, will not find it here.

What you will find are engaging anecdotes, some of them important footnotes to history, many of them stories little known. The focus is the public Hesburgh who operated outside of Notre Dame, the priest who spanned and tried to reconcile disparate worlds. Despite Reedy's wooden prose, it is this Hesburgh and his part in the central dramas of the post-World War II world that proves fascinating. The account of his 15-year tenure on the Civil Rights Commission (1957-1972) is one telling case in point. Here is the well-connected wheeler-dealer who knows the uses of serious play. With one telephone call, he summons a private airplane to whisk a group of ideologically fractured civil rights commissioners from a heat wave in Shreveport, La., to a Notre Dame lodge in Wisconsin, there to write their recommendations to the president. The fishing is great, the food superb, the martinis very dry -- and as a result, the three Southern commission members, to their own dumbfoundment, agree that our American version of apartheid ought to be abolished. Out of such touches, Hesburgh suggests, came the Omnibus Civil Rights Bill of 1964.

The account of Hesburgh's service, at the height of the cold war, as the Vatican representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna is equally impressive. He made friends with the Russians, sometimes by the simplest means -- a sympathy card, flowers for an ailing wife -- and eventually had even hardened atheists attending his Masses. On one occasion the forbidding Vyacheslav Molotov calls to apologize that he will have to miss Mass. One thing leads to another -- and in time Hesburgh is able to get John J. McCone, the principal American arms negotiator, to actually like his Soviet opposite number. Of such informalities are nuclear test ban treaties, glasnost and perestroika made.

Inevitably, Hesburgh also wants to set the record straight. He was uncomfortable, he tells us, when his famous 1969 Letter to Notre Dame Students gained him hero status among the hawks of the time; less known was Hesburgh's defense of student protest, in the form of an open letter to Vice President Spiro Agnew (hand delivered by Sol Linowitz and Pat Moynihan at the last minute) that stopped the nation's governors (so Nelson Rockefeller assured him) from calling in the National Guard to quell campus unrest.

Since his retirement as president of the University of Notre Dame in 1987, Hesburgh has kept himself occupied, among other things, by sitting on the boards of some 50 institutions concerned with what he tells us are his special interests these days -- peace, human rights, Third World development, ecology and ecumenism. Quite a load -- you might as well say that he continues to carry the world on his shoulders. Yet his friends assure me that he is not a type A personality, only that he had (and has) a superb secretary. I wonder, though, if he or his secretary ever sleeps. When Ted Hesburgh tells Notre Dame students they can move mountains if they will, the note on which this book closes, he tells it as it has been for him.

The reviewer is an editor of America magazine and a director of the Catholic Book Club.