In only a few weeks, Harvard, the American Establishment's alma mater and this nation's oldest and most prestigious college, will celebrate the 350th anniversary of its founding. That's right, 350 years, which means Harvard spent its first century and a half without an American president but with a British sovereign. Maybe that fact explains, while not beginning to justify, why the grand procession for Harvard's 350th is being led not by the elected chief executive of the United States but by His Inherited Royal Highness Charles, the Prince of Wales.
To be fair, Ronald Reagan did decline Harvard's invitation to attend. But the invitation to Reagan included no honorary degree, an honor that had become somewhat traditional for U.S. presidents in office when these parties have been held every 50 years. In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt already held an honorary degree when he spoke at Harvard's 300th anniversary. Fifty years before that, excessive modesty compelled President Grover Cleveland, who led the Harvard parade, to decline the college's proffered degree. In 1836 Andrew Jackson, who held a Harvard honorary degree, was in the White House. In 1986 Harvard ought to be ashamed of itself.
In addition to the Gipper, Harvard is also failing to honor the Tipper, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., who has represented Cambridge for 32 years and who will, like Ronald Reagan, leave the office he worked for and won with its respect restored and its power revitalized. Harvard, which prizes leadership, ought to recognize both Reagan and O'Neill for what they unmistakably are: extraordinarily effective leaders.
Apparently the colonial mentality at Harvard retains a preference for leaders who are anointed rather than elected. Honorary degrees have been awarded to the crown prince of Sweden, Prince Henry of Prussia, Spain's King Juan Carlos and the late lamented shah of Iran. But in the college's defense, let it be noted that Harvard did award honorary degrees to Republican President Ulysses S. Grant, who held office during an orgy of public pillaging, and to Grant's successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, who, while personally honest, captured the presidency in an election in which he won 300,000 fewer votes than Samuel Tilden, his Democratic opponent, and which is remembered for its wholesale fraud, intimidation and murder. Harvard never gave a similar honor to Republican Abraham Lincoln.
Maybe Reagan's mistake was that he made "movies" instead of "films." Perhaps if Reagan's "Bonzo" epic had been directed by a Truffaut or a Bergman and appeared with subtitles, the elite would have liked him better. You have to understand that these are people who are still shaken from the Great Tainted Brie Scare of 1975. Neither the president nor the speaker pretends to great scholarship, but that charge has never been leveled, either, at most of the British royal family, a few of whom appear to have an IQ about room temperature.
As FDR himself remarked at the 1936 ceremonies, many Harvard men had been upset at earlier anniversary parties because Democrats Jackson and Cleveland were then president. Then, Harvard and the Establishment had been out of touch with the country. Today, Harvard is still the Establishment and still seemingly out of touch with the United States. Harvard ought to admit its mistake and humbly ask Speaker O'Neill of Boston College and President Reagan of Eureka College to accept honorary degrees.