Matters of Conscience
Sterling M. McMurrin and L. Jackson Newell
United States Commissioner of Education
[p. 257] Sterling, when did you get your first inkling that you might be asked to serve with President John F. Kennedy as his Commissioner of Education?
It was Wednesday night before Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961. As vice-president of the university, I was attending an affair of the business school in the Union Building. It was around ten o’clock and the program was about over when someone from the office called me to the telephone. It was Alvin Eurich from New York, whom I’d met when he was president of the State University of New York. At the time he called me, he was vice-president of the Ford Foundation in charge of their educational programs. He said, “Sterling, several of us are meeting here in New York. We have been asked by the incoming administration to propose someone to be United States Commissioner of Education. We want to propose you for that position and would like to know first whether you will accept it.”
How did this come about? Who was involved on the other end?
I had first met Al Eurich at Princeton University, where we were introduced by Meredith Wilson. The three of us rode from Princeton to New York together. I learned afterward that John W. Gardner, who was then president of the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Foundation, also recommended me for the U.S. commissionership.
What was your response to Eurich’s phone call that January evening?
It seemed to me that acceptance was the proper thing to do, so I told him, “Yes, if asked, I will accept the position.” I’m entirely nonpolitical, Jack, as you know. I have never had any connection with the Republican or Democratic Party, or any other party. And certainly I had no contact with the Kennedys or their associates. My Aspen experiences with Robert Kennedy came later. I did have a close friend in the government who was scheduled to become Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, but apparently he had nothing whatsoever to do [p. 258] with this matter. I learned some time later that Stewart had a candidate for education commissioner from his own state, Arizona.
On Friday I listened to the president’s inaugural address on the radio, and on Saturday morning the new Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, Abraham Ribicoff, called me on the telephone and said, “I understand that you and I might be able to go into business together.” I said, “Yes, I’ve heard as much.” “Well,” he said, “how soon could you come to Washington to talk it over?” In those days I preferred to travel by train, and it’s about a two-day trip by train. I said, “I can get into Washington on Monday. How would it be if I came to your office on Tuesday?” He said, “Fine.” Monday was his first day in office.
So you went to Washington . . .
Yes, I checked into the Lafayette Hotel Monday night, not far from the White House. I hadn’t set a time with Secretary Ribicoff; so about eight the next morning—I didn’t know when they started things around there—I called Ribicoff’s office and his secretary told me that he’d be pleased if I would come right over.
How did your discussion begin?
Mr. Ribicoff was very pleasant. He asked what I thought should be done about American education. My main response was the need to take a very good look at two things: upgrading the quality of elementary and, especially, secondary education and adapting education to the manpower needs of the nation. I had given considerable attention to both problems, the latter particularly in connection with our engineering labor force compared to that of the Soviets. Ribicoff and I discussed these matters for a short time. He then asked if I was a member of the National Educational Association. When I told him that I had no involvement with the NEA, he seemed pleased. I learned later that President Kennedy wasn’t about to appoint anybody as the Commissioner of Education who was a member of the NEA.
Anyway, we had talked for maybe half an hour, when he said, “I need to call the president. I wonder if you would mind stepping into the outer office.” So I went into the outer office and strained my ears as much as I could. The only fragment of conversation I picked up was, “… and he doesn’t belong to the NEA.” Then Secretary Ribicoff had me come back in, and we continued a very pleasant session while we waited for Ralph Dungan, the president’s assistant on official appointments, to come over. Dungan showed up in about ten minutes and we talked for another ten or so. Then they asked me again if I would step out while they talked to the president. This time I went into a kind of [p. 259] foyer lobby that led into the secretary’s office and sat there looking at a magazine. In about five minutes Dungan came out, put on his coat, shook hands with me, and said, “The president will announce your appointment this afternoon.”
But they didn’t formally ask if you would take the job!
No, they did not. If they had asked, I would have said yes. To be very honest with you, however, I had no desire to move to Washington. Natalie and I had just moved into a new home; we were settled and contented; and I was happy at the university.
Then why did you lay your reservations aside and jump in?
Well, I felt that I should. I hadn’t been in military service and I thought this would be some compensation.
But you hardly escaped doing budgets, Sterling!
Sure, but I discovered that it was a simpler thing to deal with hundreds of millions of dollars in Washington than it was to deal with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the university. Anyway, the whole affair lasted no more than an hour. No one in Washington asked me, then or at any time I was in the government, whether I was a Republican or a Democrat, or even whether I voted for the president. That pleased me a great deal.
Splendid! But how had you voted—for John Kennedy or Richard Nixon?
The only person at the time who asked me if I’d voted for Kennedy was a reporter for Time magazine who interviewed me in Salt Lake City. I had a real hassle with him. I said, “The vote is by secret ballot, so I’m not going to answer that question.” He said, “Our readers want to know.” I said, “It’s none of your readers’ business how I voted. What’s that got to do with it? …. But this is the sort of thing that we need to know. Did you favor him for president?” I said, “I’m not going to tell you whether I did or not.” We went the rounds on this until he gave up. Then I said, “Now, if I have your word that you won’t put it in your article, I’ll tell you how I voted.” He gave me his word and I said, “Yes, I did vote for the president.” But that was the only time anyone ever raised that question with me. He didn’t mention it in his article.
The conditions of your appointment or, more accurately, lack of conditions says something about the initial spirit of the Kennedy administration, doesn’t it?
It certainly does. I did my part to keep it that way, too. I never called on Senator Frank Moss without calling on Senator Wallace Bennett and vice versa. Didn’t even step inside a door unless I had time to also go to [p. 260] the other’s office. Of course, Moss was a Democrat and Bennett was a Republican.
What did you do for the rest of that first day?
When the interview was over, it was still quite early and I had the rest of the day free. I wasn’t catching my plane home until the next day, so I called on my old friend Stewart Udall, who was just starting in as Secretary of the Interior.
He was a student of yours at Tucson, wasn’t he?
He always says he was. Actually he didn’t take a class from me, but we spent many hours together discussing various matters and we became, and still remain, intimate friends. Stewart had been a University of Arizona basketball star before going into the Air Force. He later attended law school and became a labor attorney before he went to Congress. Kennedy appointed him Secretary of the Interior from there. He was quite close to the Kennedys.
Well, I took a cab to the Department of the Interior and found Udall’s office. A very nice lady in the second or third outer office said, “Oh, it will be impossible for you to see Mr. Udall. You know, the secretary just came into this position and is so busy that he can’t possibly receive callers.” I wrote my name on a piece of paper and asked her to show it to him. She did, Stewart came out, and we spent about an hour and a half in his office. It was enormous. I said, “Stewart, what the hell are you going to do rattling around in a place like this? It’s beautiful, but it’s like a hotel lobby!” He said, “I know. I’ve played basketball on courts smaller than this.” Harold Ickes, a former Secretary of the Interior, had built the building.
Your appointment was announced that afternoon?
As a matter of fact, the president did not announce it until the next day. I flew back to Salt Lake City, and photographers and reporters were waiting for me when I got off the plane. Later on Secretary Ribicoff told me, “You know, the president got into difficulty with the party when he appointed you. He had been making appointments without the national Democratic organization checking the candidates out with the state organizations.”
You mean the Utah party headquarters couldn’t have verified that you’d been passing out handbills for Utah’s Democratic candidates?
I guess not! Anyway, Ribicoff said, “When the president went to make your appointment public, that’s when they said, ‘Now look, this has got to stop. You’ve got to give us time to check back with our state organizations. We can’t leave them out of these things.’ So you’re the [p. 261] one who caused them to blow the whistle.”
But they didn’t decide to block your appointment?
Oh, no. It just held things up for a day.
What was the response to your appointment here in Utah?
The university regents and President Olpin were very pleased. President Olpin recommended to the regents that I be given a leave of absence, which they granted. The state legislature was in session and I was invited to address the Senate, which I did. It was very pleasant. They later passed a resolution unanimously congratulating me on the appointment, and the Secretary of State sent me a copy. But a motion for a resolution of congratulations in the State House of Representatives was debated for some time. Several representatives, according to the papers, voted against the resolution—one person arguing that I was not only an atheist but also a communist.
McCarthyism still lingered, didn’t it? Well, onward! What about your formal Senate hearing and confirmation?
It was a pleasant occasion.
Did the NEA object?
No, I’m sure they didn’t. So far as I know no one submitted any objections whatsoever.
When was the hearing?
It came with no warning in April, right after the NEA held a big reception for Ribicoff and me and our wives. Natalie and I were changing trains in St. Louis on the way to Salt Lake, and I actually had one foot on the step when a depot official came running up and said, “We have a telegram for you from Washington.” The telegram said that the Senate committee would meet on my nomination the next morning. So Natalie went on to Salt Lake City, and I flew back to Washington.
How did it go?
It was very pleasant. The chair of the Senate Education and Labor Committee was Senator Lister Hill from Alabama, a Southern gentleman and a really impressive person. I later got rather well acquainted with him.
Utah’s senators, Frank Moss and Wallace Bennett, were at the hearing; to my surprise they both offered generous statements in my support. There was some discussion by the committee. Senator Hill, for instance, said, “I see by your record that you’re a member of Phi Beta Kappa. I said, “That’s right, Senator; and I’m aware that you also are a member of Phi Beta Kappa.” He said, “Yes, but I’m just an honorary [p. 262] member.” I said, “It’s a greater honor to be an honorary member than just to be an ordinary member.” He laughed and said, “Commissioner McMurrin, you will go a long way here in Washington.”
Everett Dirkson of Illinois came bustling in a little late, and Senator Hill said, “Senator Dirkson, as you know, our meeting today is on the nomination of Dr. McMurrin for United States Commissioner of Education.” Dirkson looked down at me and said in his deep voice, “Oh, you’ll be sorry, you’ll be so sorry.” It was all very light-hearted.
Senator Joseph S. Clark of Pennsylvania asked me whether or not, since I am a Mormon, I could support the integration of the public schools. I appreciated that question because I wanted to get my answer on the record. I responded that I did not accept the position of the Mormon church with respect to Negroes and had made my position very clear to the leadership of the Mormon church. I assured the committee that I was 100 percent in favor of desegregated schools. I didn’t want to get into the priesthood ordination issue, but I felt that the church’s negative position on Africans and African Americans, no matter what its roots, was wrong and I wanted to disassociate myself from it.
Yes, and it took seventeen more agonizing years for the church to right that injustice. So there was no opposition to your nomination?
Not as far as I know.
How about your swearing in?
The swearing-in ceremonies were held in April. Justice William Brennan of the Supreme Court sent word to the president that he would like to swear me in, and he did. There was a good-sized auditorium with perhaps twelve hundred people there. Secretary Ribicoff introduced me and I made a short speech.
It was all a little humorous. A couple of photographers got there too late to take pictures of the ceremony and asked us to restage the scene. But the Bible had disappeared. So Justice Brennan and I faked it, holding our hands to make it look as if they were resting on a Bible—a Catholic and a Mormon collaborating to deceive the public.
Although you have always done administrative work, you’ve never done it in an administrative—or bureaucratic—way. I remember, for instance, when you were dean of the Graduate School, your memoranda to the faculty were so infrequent that you would kiddingly call them Communiqué No. 1 or Communiqué No. 4. So how did a philosopher and an intellectual fit into an enormous Washington bureau like the U.S. Office of Education?
Well, as strange as it may seem, it was not a problem for me. Secretary Ribicoff said to me right from the start, “You take care of the education [p. 263] end of things and I’ll take care of the politics.” He would refer to himself as a politician, which he was, of a very high order. Ribicoff was a self-made lawyer from Chicago, governor of Connecticut, then Secretary of HEW, and finally U.S. Senator. That helped the situation right from the start.
But it surely didn’t solve all of your problems.
No, indeed. There were problems. For instance, I had been in Washington maybe three months when I received an edict issued from the White House that every policymaker in the administration would have to submit his or her public addresses for White House approval before they could be delivered. Well, I wasn’t going to submit my stuff to somebody else for review. I didn’t give a damn who they were, though I recognized the reason for such a regulation!
That’s a bureaucracy, all right, whether it came from the president, one of his assistants or somebody else. Did you comply?
I sent an address to the White House only once, just once. I was to give an address at Harvard and had sent the draft over for clearance. I didn’t hear back for a long time. I was actually on my way to Harvard, still without approval for my text, when I stopped along the way—we were driving—and called from a booth along the highway. They said my speech was cleared.
If it hadn’t been cleared, you’d have been in an interesting position.
True, but I would simply have spoken extemporaneously. Frankly, I didn’t feel I could live with that situation. Fortunately, I learned through our legal counsel that if I gave an address from notes, it wouldn’t have to be cleared. From then on I just wrote my addresses for formal occasions as I always had, then simply titled them “Notes.”
A small but sweet victory for the human spirit!
I never submitted another address to the White House, but I usually spoke extemporaneously anyway. Early on I was introduced to a man in the Office of Education who was recommended to me as my speech writer. He had been my predecessor’s speech writer. I’m afraid he was offended when he learned that I had no use for his services. I wrote my own stuff.
Did you ever get a feeling that the White House was uncomfortable with what you said publicly?
Never had the slightest ripple either from the White House or from anyone else in the administration, not the slightest objection to anything that I said in public or things that were published. So my experience on [p. 264] that score turned out to be entirely pleasant. Of course, there were objections from some legislators.
You have mentioned that you were misquoted so often in Washington that sometimes you didn’t even read the articles that cited your words. Were you serious?
Yes, I never got angry at the misquotes and misrepresentations; but I must say I was annoyed with Senator Barry Goldwater who had a weekly column syndicated in some eighty newspapers. In the lecture at Harvard University that I mentioned, I pointed out that the Soviet Union had created great strength through regimentation and authoritarian methods but that we must create even greater strength through our free institutions. It’s all on paper. Goldwater wrote four separate columns on this lecture of mine, criticizing me for saying that we needed to do what the Soviets were doing, then adding, “I’m not saying that McMurrin is a communist, but—”
But! A big “but.”
Precisely. I was astonished that a U.S. Senator would come out with that kind of stuff. Of course, after I’d been there for a while, I realized that U.S. Senators can do the damnedest things. In this case, I’m pretty sure Goldwater—or his ghost-writer back in Arizona—was just using this to get at President Kennedy. Well, a number of Senators and Congressmen got in touch with me to tell me how disgusted they were with what Goldwater had done. Walter Reuther, a very dear friend, sent me a letter saying, “All I can say is that when you have Goldwater down on you, you have arrived. There’s no greater compliment.” One of the highly placed people in the Office of Education was Ralph Flint, a Virginian, a courtly gentleman of such formality that he always addressed me as “Mr. Commissioner” and wouldn’t get in an elevator ahead of me. When he read the first of Goldwater’s columns, he came to my office and said, “Mr. Commissioner, you haven’t asked for my advice on this, but I simply want to say, don’t get into an argument with a man who has a newspaper column.” I thought that was excellent advice.
There was no love lost between Goldwater and me anyway, because he’d done dirt to Stewart Udall when he was running for Congress from Arizona. In later years Goldwater became a moderate, and now I quite admire him as an elder statesman. But back in 1964 I really wanted one of those bumper stickers that I saw in Phoenix when Goldwater was running for president that said, “Back in the store in ’64.”
Whether you agreed with him or not, Goldwater was one of those rare politicians who said exactly what he believed. What kind of experiences did [p. 265] you have with Congress more broadly?
My relations with both the Senate and House were, on the whole, very good. But let me tell you a good story. I was testifying before the House Subcommittee on Education, on, as I recall, the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) fellowships. Recipients were required by Congressional mandate to take a special loyalty oath—not the ordinary oath of allegiance to the Constitution that every government official takes when he or she is sworn in, but a special loyalty oath. President Eisenhower had been for getting rid of it, President Kennedy wanted to get rid of it, and I testified more than once urging that the Congress repeal it because there was no justification for it.
What was the oath?
It was an oath on the order of that odious University of California loyalty oath, designed just for professors, that the California courts later outlawed. When I was being cross-examined on this oath business, some of the members of the committee began to press me. For the most part, they were doing it for the folks back home to get their patriotism on the record. Some of them would tell me this after trying to give me a rough time.
Did this acknowledged hypocrisy occur often?
Often enough. Twice when I was in long arguments with House committee members, my chief antagonist came down afterwards and shook hands. One of those who did this was a Chicago Congressman who wanted money for parochial schools and was not about to vote money for the public schools unless we came through with money for Catholic education. Well, it was quite a fracas for his two rounds often minutes each, but I didn’t give in. As soon as the session was over, he stepped off the stand, came over to shake my hand, and said, “Nothing personal, Commissioner. This was all for the folks back home.”
This sort of thing makes cynics of us all, especially students whose interest in democratic processes we can’t afford to lose. Disgusting! But on this matter of the loyalty oath . . .
I volunteered that I had no objection to requiring the oath of allegiance to the Constitution, but, I said, “That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about an additional, special oath that a person has to take simply because he’s involved in education.” There’s always a bunch of reporters there, and the moment I said, “I have no objection—” several reporters bounced out of the room and at least one of them reported that I was in favor of these special loyalty oaths. The damnedest thing I ever heard. Well, the next day this was reported in [p. 266] the Deseret News. Bill Smart was editor of the editorial page at that time. I immediately wrote him a letter explaining what had happened, and he published a correction saying that the earlier report had been a distortion of what I said. Lord only knows what appeared in other newspapers.
What was your feeling about the Kennedy administration’s overall educational position?
It didn’t take me long to discover that I was entirely in harmony with the educational policies of the president. He was against money for parochial schools and in favor of federal money for public education. So was I. I had no fundamental differences in matters of policy with the people in the White House or with Mr. Ribicoff of HEW. As far as I could tell, my relations in both directions, and also with other government agencies, were entirely cordial.
What other agencies do you have in mind?
Particularly the Department of State and the Department of Labor. And also such agencies as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Atomic Energy Commission, the Bureau of the Budget, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Agriculture, and the president’s Scientific Advisory Commission. Labor gets involved a lot in education, especially through its training and retraining programs. I served on a committee or two for the Department of Labor; and after I left the government, the Secretary of Labor, Willard Wirtz, asked me to chair two committees for the Department of Labor. Quite honestly, I didn’t have any clashes at all within the administration.
By most accounts, the first year of the Kennedy administration was chaotic. You make it sound so harmonious. What gives?
I had problems with the bureaucracy within the Office of Education itself and with the private bureaucracies serving education, particularly those connected with the National Education Association.
Now that’s what I want to pursue. From the outset, you were quite critical of the NEA—and they of you—as I recall.
I certainly was, and I still am. They were very polite and I was polite, but we certainly had fundamental differences.
What were your differences?
First, I should say that my relations with the higher education associations were, as far as I was concerned, entirely positive as well as cordial. Especially the American Council on Education, the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, and the Association of American Colleges.
[p. 267] What were your differences, then, with the National Education Association and its leaders?
When I say the National Education Association here, I include some organizations that were in the NEA building in Washington but not officially part of the NEA. That would include such organizations as the Chief State School Officers (they just called them “the Chiefs”), which is an organization of the State Commissioners of Education, as you know, and the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). Those were the main ones that I had relations with. The National School Boards Association was located in Evanston, Illinois.
But the NEA-related associations were all of one mind, and that mind was far different from yours?
You understand that my personal relations with the people who were in the leadership of those organizations were cordial enough, with one or two exceptions. I am referring to the more or less permanent executive officers of the organization, not their annually elected officials. I should mention here Allan West, a high officer of the NEA, for whom I had the highest regard and with whom I still have a warm friendship. Allan was, in my opinion, of a different stripe from most of the others with whom I had dealings.
Back to the three organizations in the NEA building. How did the problem develop?
Well, initially there was great disappointment that a person from higher education was appointed to the position of commissioner. Most of the previous appointees had come out of public school administration. My immediate predecessor, for instance, Lawrence Derthick, had been a school superintendent. When he left the government, he became a high official in the NEA. I can understand the disappointment. At that time, however, it was a surprise to me. I got acquainted with the key people very early. My predecessor had made the deputy commissioner’s position a civil service job, so I inherited Deputy Commissioner Wayne Reed. He was a pleasant person, but he had trouble handling major problems. He told me right from the start—and it turned out to be true—that the best thing he could do for me would be to act as a kind of liaison between me and the education leaders in elementary and secondary education. He was very much in their confidence and, I might say, in their pocket.
So he got you together with them?
Yes, it must have been the very first week I was in Washington. Wayne took me over to the NEA building and I had a get-together with [p. 268] Bill Carr, the executive director of the NEA, and four or five of his top associates. Then on the same afternoon or evening, I met with Finis Engleman, executive head of the American Association of School Administrators, a former State Commissioner of Education, a kind of elder statesman. At that same time I met with Edgar Fuller, who was the executive director of the Chief State School Officers, a smaller organization but a very influential one. Fuller didn’t like me, and I wasn’t fond of him either.
And this was even before you were officially sworn into office?
Yes, before I was confirmed by the Senate. It was during my first or second stint. I would go to Washington for several days, then come back and carry on as vice-president of the university for several days, then back to Washington—a seesaw operation until I was confirmed.
Natalie and the kids stayed in Salt Lake until the end of the school year. I lived with Natalie’s youngest sister, Marie, and her husband, Julian Ross, in Arlington, until June when we purchased a new home in Arlington. They were very generous with me and made things very pleasant. Without them, I would have been a very lonely person for a few months.
How long did you continue to commute between Salt Lake City and Washington?
Well, for about a month. There had to be some transition to a new university vice-president, and no one in Washington put any pressure on me to take up residence immediately. I functioned just as if I had been formally sworn in but was paid as a consultant. The Senate didn’t take action on me until April because they had so many new appointments to consider. As a matter of fact, the university appointed Dan Dykstra from the law school as vice-president before I was actually confirmed in Washington.
So you started off cordially with the NEA?
Oh yes. In fact, before the Senate hearing, even, they hosted a very large affair for Ribicoff and me. Natalie came back for it. It was very impressive. Hundreds of people came. We had a reception line with Secretary and Mrs. Ribicoff, Natalie and me, the NEA president, and Bill Carr, the NEA executive officer, and Mrs. Carr. They’d asked for a list of people whom I would like to invite, and I listed the three Supreme Court Justices with whom I had had association. William Brennan and Byron White and I were good friends. I was well acquainted also with Potter Stewart. A couple of them came.
[p. 269] Did you invite Walter Reuther?
Yes, he was then president of the United Auto Workers and vice-president of the combined AFL-CIO. When he came in, it literally transformed the place. Bill Carr said to me, “You know, I saw Reuther’s name on the list, but I had no idea he would come. We’ve tried for years to get him over here with no success, and by gosh, here he is.”
This should have improved your standing with the NEA!
Temporarily, perhaps. The interesting thing is that before the reception was over, Reuther was in a side room with a big audience lecturing to the NEA people. Reuther was a great statesman and certainly the foremost symbol of labor that this country has had since John L. Lewis. He was a man of the highest cultivation, a statesman of the highest order. I’d vote for him for president of the United States any day in the week. We haven’t had a president of his quality since Kennedy, in my opinion. Anyway, it made the NEA’s day to have Reuther in their building.
One more story. As we were standing in this reception line in our black tie outfits, Ribicoff said to me, “Sterling, let’s give them hell; and if it doesn’t work out you can go back to teaching philosophy and I’ll go back to selling ties.”
Now that captures the spirit of the early Kennedy administration!
I mention this reception because it indicates that we got started off in a very good way with the NEA in spite of the fact that I already knew I was a disappointment to them.
Then what caused the deterioration in your relations with the NEA?
I’ll give you two or three examples of the kind of thing I encountered soon after I arrived in Washington. I received a letter from a high NEA official whom I knew in Utah where he had been a college president. He wrote to tell me that many of his associates were of the opinion that I knew a great deal about foundations but very little about schools. I regarded this as an insulting remark and didn’t reply. I was somewhat amused by the fact that most of these NEA bureaucrats hadn’t taught a class for years, if they had ever taught one, while I had been teaching ever since 1937 and met classes right up until I went to Washington.
On another occasion, immediately following my swearing-in, I gave a press conference at which I made it clear that, on the whole, the American schools were not as strong as they should be—and could be. I also put in a plug for merit pay for teachers. My statements were spread all over the papers the next morning; and before many hours [p. 270] had passed, I received a very long telegram from the executive officer of the superintendents’ association, the AASA. He let me know that he was shocked and disappointed that the U.S. Commissioner of Education had publicly criticized the American schools. I replied by letter to Mr. Engleman, saying that he could not have been as shocked by my statement as I was by his telegram, and that I considered criticism of the schools to be one of my responsibilities as commissioner. I guess that did it.
Now the picture is coming into focus, Sterling. Go on.
Not long after that I received an invitation to address the annual meeting of the National School Boards Association in Philadelphia. Wayne Reed, the deputy commissioner and liaison with the NEA and affiliated associations, came in and said, “It wouldn’t be a good idea for you to address the School Boards Association.” I think he told me three times that that wasn’t a good idea. I said, “What do you mean it wouldn’t be a good idea?” He was a little vague and said, “No, this wouldn’t be a good idea. I’ll write and tell them that you’re busy but that you’ll come and extend greetings to them.” That’s what I’d done at two or three organizations already. The AASA had invited me to extend my greetings at Atlantic City, for instance.
That was their way of feeling you out—having you there but not taking a chance on a full speech?
Yes, and I dug in my heels at this point. “Wayne,” I said, “I wasn’t invited to extend greetings to them. I was asked to be on the program and give an address.”
“But this crowd will just chew you up,” he said.
“Hell, Wayne,” I said, “they’re not going to do anything of the kind.”
“Well, I know, but you’re just not acquainted with a lot of these issues and you don’t know this organization.”
He was determined that I wasn’t going to address them. Now, I honestly believed that he had received his instructions from the NEA on this, and I wasn’t going to back down.
“Listen, Wayne,” I said, “nobody chews me up. If they raise questions that I can’t speak on, I’ll just tell them I’m new in this business. I taught my last class the morning I left to come to Washington. There’s nobody in the NEA building as close to education as I am. I’m going up there and talk to these people.”
So I went to Philadelphia, and I’ve never had a warmer reception. The questions the school board people raised with me at the close of my address clearly revealed why the school people in Washington didn’t [p. 271] want me to meet with them. For instance, one question was, “How do we get rid of a superintendent?” Fire him, I said, but follow due process and respect his right to defend himself.
How were you treated by the press?
I was especially pleased by this positive reception by the School Boards Association because with me were a writer and photographer from Look magazine who were doing a feature story on me. They had been with me several days in Washington and went with me to New York where that same evening I addressed the New York Press Club at a banquet at the Plaza Hotel. The photographer had gone to Utah to take dozens of pictures of Natalie and the kids. I was treated very generously by the media, both in print and in radio and television.
Some time later, I think, you met in Atlantic City with a committee of the AASA, the superintendents’ association, to discuss relations with the federal government?
I wanted witnesses for this one, so I was accompanied by Boyer Jarvis and Robert Rosenzweig, who later headed the prestigious Association of American Universities. The committee, six or seven superintendents, along with their executive officer, Mr. Engleman, handed me a series of questions that blasted me for my criticisms of the schools. The chair made it clear that they wanted me to stop making public statements about problems and weaknesses in public education. My function as the U.S. Commissioner was simply to be a representative of the schools in dealing with the government, mainly to raise money. Beyond that, I was to keep my damn mouth shut. But two of the superintendents on the committee disagreed with this—Phil Hickey of St. Louis and John Letson of Atlanta. Hickey came out flatfooted and urged me, as he put it, “to keep it up.” When I refused to back down, the chair said, “We don’t disagree with your criticism of the schools. What you say is true. We simply don’t want you saying it in public.” I told him that I represented the public and would continue to say whatever I regarded as appropriate in the interest of improving the schools. Now, Jack, I wouldn’t want you to think that I went around doing nothing but criticizing the schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the press and television were quick to pick up anything that I said that even had the appearance of criticism. My whole approach to the schools was positive.
How did you get along with the NEA when it was all said and done?
My last encounter with Bill Carr was not especially pleasant. Some weeks after I had resigned and returned to Salt Lake, Wallace Turner,[p. 272] who had been head of public relations of HEW and was now at the New York Times headquarters in San Francisco, interviewed me regarding my work in Washington, especially my relations with the education associations affiliated with the NEA. I told him plainly that in my opinion the NEA was a great burgeoning bureaucracy that in many ways stood in the way of progress in American education, that the NEA was as much a problem for education in America as it was a solution, and that it was not as effective in improving education as the American Federation of Teachers, the AFL-CIO affiliate. I guess when they read Turner’s article in the New York Times all hell broke loose. Bill Carr called me on the phone, terribly upset, to demand whether I had actually said such things. I assured him that I had. He was probably in difficult straits with his board and members.
That must have been a fairly brisk exchange.
Yes, and unfortunately I never saw him again.
But there was more to this NEA conflict than that. We seem to be peeling back some layers of discord, one by one, Sterling!
Yes, you’re right. Not long before leaving Washington, I addressed a meeting of NEA people from across the nation who were the experts on teacher salary problems. I challenged both the NEA and the AFT for their opposition to merit pay for teachers, especially the arguments they used against merit pay. Several who were present told me that they agreed 100 percent with me but were unable to get anywhere with the top officials in the matter of merit pay.
In the spring of 1962, I accepted an appointment from the Secretary of State to head an American delegation to the twenty-fifth annual conference of the International Congress on Education at Geneva, Switzerland. Not long before I departed for Geneva, Bill Carr called me and asked if I was planning to attend the annual NEA convention. I told Bill that I had received no notice of their meeting, knew nothing about it, and would be out of the country. He said, I think rather sheepishly, that they thought that if I was going to be at the meeting, they would put me somewhere on the program. I regarded the whole approach to be nothing but an insult. I think he was relieved that I would be out of the country.
He may have already known of your trip abroad before he called you. What was going on?
Whether rightly or wrongly, I had the impression that the NEA was quite negative toward private education. I felt that my responsibility was to all education, not simply tax-supported schools. I rather think this [p. 273] simply added fuel to the opposition that some bureaucrats in the NEA had toward me. The leaders of private schools, both parochial and independent, seemed to be very friendly toward me. I met with large numbers of them on several occasions, in Chicago, New York, New Orleans, and Atlantic City. I certainly did not do or say anything that would hurt the public schools. I have always been a strong supporter of public education.
What would you like to say about John F. Kennedy as president and as a person? He was a little younger than you, wasn’t he?
Yes, I was young enough at forty-seven, and he was younger than I was. He was a very impressive person. I had seen him previously only once, when he spoke at the University of Utah before his nomination.
Did you meet him then?
No, I didn’t.
What about the Kennedy charisma at close range? Did you sense it during the campaign?
To some degree, yes, but it became more obvious to me in Washington. He was very attractive and personable and obviously highly intelligent. There really was a kind of Camelot air in Washington in those days. The president was a brilliant man. My contacts with him were very pleasant. He actually had the style they write about. When I was first introduced to him in the Oval Office, he said warmly, “It’s good to see you again.” He’d never seen me before, but it was a nice, personal touch.
Did he sit in his rocking chair?
No, not at that time. We walked around the Oval Office and strolled into the Rose Garden.
What other times did you meet with him?
Well, I’ll mention another time when it was my task to introduce the Teacher of the Year, a very attractive young woman, to the president. There was a reception in the Rose Garden, a very pleasant affair and a public event with lots of senators and representatives anxious to get their pictures taken with the president. This teacher told me that she had never been in the White House. When President Kennedy strolled up to us, I mentioned this to him. He immediately arranged to give her a tour.
He certainly made you understand the importance of courtesy and good manners. He was genteel—a much-underrated and misused word.
Tell me about your most interesting meeting with President Kennedy.
It occurred after I’d been in Washington about three or four months. [p. 274] One summer morning about 9:00, my secretary, came in and said, “The president wants you to come to the White House at 10:00 a.m.” The role was that you showed up at the White House ten minutes early. You might wait forever, but you were to be there ten minutes in advance. I was wearing a tie and a sports jacket, a perfectly good one—but it didn’t match my trousers. I thought, “Hell, I can’t go over there looking like this,” so I called Natalie and asked her to bring me a suit. My office had a dressing room and bath, but I hadn’t stocked it with shirts and suits and such things. After that I always kept a complement of clothes in the office.
A few minutes later Natalie called and said the battery was low and she couldn’t start the car. My Lord Almighty! I called Boyer Jarvis, who was just down the hall; and we raced over to our house in Arlington, Natalie met me at the door with the clothes, and I think I changed my pants right there on the porch and finished dressing in the car as Boyer drove me back to the White House north gate. They checked me right through—they knew I should have been there already—and the head man took me right through to the president’s outer office—and there was Bill Carr from the NEA.
He’d gotten there ten minutes early.
You bet he had. We shook hands, and just as I sat down, the president opened the door himself—right on the dot of ten o’clock, and—here’s the point of the whole story—he was wearing a sports jacket and a pair of pants that looked like the ones I had just taken off! More stylish, of course, and more expensive than mine. He always dressed well. We went in and discussed educational matters for a half hour or so. Bill and I certainly agreed on the need for more federal funding for education, and President Kennedy was much concerned about the problem of salaries for teachers; but federal aid for education, even though he strongly favored it, was not necessarily his highest priority. After our conversation, the photographers came in for the usual photo session and snapped some pictures. The president later autographed one of those photographs for me.
You have it hanging in your hallway at home.
Yes. I didn’t want to put it up but Natalie thought we should hang it somewhere. Sometimes I see it and I think, “My hell, that can’t be me.” I look too young. Those short haircuts, you see. Well, Bill and I were on the sofa and the president was now in his famous rocking chair. We shook hands with the president and Bill left, but the president asked me to stay.
[p. 275] What did you talk about?
It was a personal conversation. He said, “I’d like to talk to you about how things are in Utah.” I said, “They’re surviving.” He smiled and said, “You know, the people of Utah didn’t vote for me.” I said, “I know that; but I want to tell you, Mr. President, that you have made a very profound impression on the people in Utah in the last few months. I just have an idea that when the election comes around again, they’ll vote for you.” And he just smiled. Then he asked about President McKay and Henry D. Moyle. He knew the latter as a leading Utah Democrat, and we gossiped a little about the University of Utah. It was a very pleasant conversation, and he asked me to extend his best wishes to President McKay. I sent President McKay a note immediately.
Another example of the personal touch.
Certainly. On several occasions one of his White House staff would ask me to draft for the president a birthday letter or a letter of congratulation about something to President McKay or other people high in the church or in Utah affairs. I got the impression that I was President Kennedy’s personal letter-writer for Utahns and for Mormons everywhere.
You have mentioned JFK’s intelligence several times. How was it expressed in your dealings with him?
Well, let me tell you a story that captures what I think of as his brilliance. It was a dinner meeting—about two hundred people—set up by the Committee for Economic Development. The president arrived after the dinner to address the group extemporaneously and then take questions. The way the camera lights were set up, he couldn’t see much of the audience—in fact, he commented on it—but he handled the questions brilliantly, called people by their first names, and had figures and dates and events arrayed in an impressive order, totally off the cuff. It was as impressive a performance as I’ve ever seen, in a university or out of it.
His personal reputation has suffered somewhat in the intervening years. Has this been hard for you to deal with?
Yes, and I’ve found those disclosures disappointing. The president was high in my estimation, and it wasn’t until after I left Washington that I learned of his alleged White House escapades. I had concentrated on my work and apparently missed the gossip. I liked Kennedy very much as an individual, and I certainly recognized that luminous quality he brought to Washington. He had style, a wonderful combination of idealism, energy, and intelligence.
[p. 276] You’ve already told me that you disapproved of Robert Kennedy’s barefoot style at Aspen. What about the rest of the Kennedy family?
I’ve never had any use for the “royal family” stuff, the “Kennedy dynasty.” I didn’t ever meet Senator Ted Kennedy, but I felt that it was inappropriate for the president to campaign for him, to campaign for his brother—and I didn’t like the idea of his appointing his other brother, Robert, as Attorney General. Too much of a family affair. I had a few involvements with Bobby and, frankly, as I’ve said, I wasn’t much attracted to him. He was too arrogant. He told me once that his sister Eunice liked me. I didn’t ever meet her, but I think she was pleased with some things I did in relation to the education of the handicapped. And I was all for Jacqueline Kennedy until she married what’s-his-name.
Aristotle Onassis. Even so, I think she died a dignified public figure. But it sounds as if your approach to the Kennedys was personal rather than political.
That’s quite true. I’m just not very political. I’ll give you two examples. There was a big hundred-dollar-a-plate banquet, a Democratic fund raiser, and I bought a ticket since it seemed to be the proper thing for people in the administration to do. The president was speaking, and I would have liked to hear him, but I had no interest in going to a political rally. I gave the ticket to one of my assistants, Robert Rosenzweig, who was a political scientist. Rosenzweig was a brilliant student of Washington politics, which he loved. He was utterly delighted. He didn’t waste any time getting over there and finding a good table. On the other hand, when I heard that the president was speaking to the Daughters of the American Revolution at Constitution Hall, Natalie and I took my mother and our daughter Trudy over there early to get good seats.
I’ve recently read a copy of your statement, “A Crisis of Conscience: The Present Condition of American Education,” to the Appropriations Subcommittee of the House of Representatives on May 8, 1961, and afterwards published by the Congress and then by a number of journals and anthologies. I’ve been struck by the fact that, except for changing a few names, you could give the same address today and be right on the cutting edge of issues in education. For instance, you talk about racial discrimination, inequalities in opportunity, low standards of achievement, and the like.
I called it a crisis of conscience because the schools were not as good as they should be and could be, and because we knew that was so but just looked the other way. With notable exceptions, the standards and achievements were low, the expectations were low, discrimination was serious, and in general teacher education was in bad shape.
[p. 277] And my question is: Have we made any progress or are we just at the same point in two cycles that happen to correspond?
I don’t think we’ve made very much progress, frankly; but I’ll also have to confess that I haven’t tracked national education trends carefully in the last few years. I think more attention is being given today to people who are economically disenfranchised; and that’s due largely to government action which began in the 1950s. From the standpoint of the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been personally disadvantaged in their education, I think there’s probably been some improvement, but there are still many who suffer. Perhaps the curriculum has improved and teachers are generally better educated, at least in terms of certification requirements.
What, in your opinion, would constitute good teacher education?
I think the education of teachers should begin with a four-year degree in liberal education, the arts and sciences, then the equivalent of at least a graduate year of professional education work. Second, I think teachers should have genuine competence in their subject areas and on the whole should receive higher salaries based in part on merit.
I agree with you completely, Sterling. Well, let’s take a break here and resume our conversation by examining the specific issues you tackled as commissioner.