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May 15, 2005
David Warsh, Proprietor


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A Bigfoot Enters the Harvard Story

 

In the dénouement of the US government’s successful lawsuit against Harvard University for its failed Russia project in the 1990s, a scheduled conference again has been postponed, this time until June 2, while the various parties’ continue their four-month-long attempt to agree on appropriate damages.

A negotiated settlement would avoid an expensive and time-consuming jury trial before US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock to determine the extent of the harm.

Harvard already has been found to have breached its contract with the US Agency for International Development to provide disinterested advice to the government of Russia; its economics professor Andrei Shleifer and his deputy, Jonathan Hay, to have committed fraud by speculating in Russian securities and trying to start a mutual fund business with their wives.

The really interesting news in the matter, however, came last week when Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam surfaced the name of author David McClintick in connection with the case. There was nothing as tangible as a press release or a book contract to report. McClintick spoke to Beam but declined to confirm that he had undertaken the project.

But in calls to others with knowledge of events, the writer had explained he was planning to write a book. There is every reason to expect it will be a good one.

A 65-year-old former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, McClintick is the author of three books in 30 years. All three show a remarkable ability to work with a wide variety of sources.

The first was Stealing From the Rich: The Home-Stake Oil Swindle, a 1977 cautionary tale of a drilling-rights tax-shelter scam memorable mainly for the energy and precision with which it was told. (A banker’s son from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, fleeces well-to-do citizens around the country, including some prominent ones.)

The second, Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street, appeared in 1982 and became a classic, a non-fiction rival to Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty as an account of lax morals in the film industry, in this case at its uppermost levels. (Columbia Pictures chief executive David Begelman forges actor Cliff Robertson’s name to a $10,000 check and gradually becomes a metaphor for widespread Tinseltown corruption.) McClintick been dividing his time between New York and Los Angeles ever since.

The third, begun after McClintick had left the paper and entered upon the career of an independent author and published in 1993, was Swordfish: A True Story of Ambition, Savagery, and Betrayal. Not to be confused with the computer-scam John Travolta movie of the same name, Swordfish also illustrates an essentially timeless tale — a story of espionage and betrayal — with a highly particular tale, the harrowing but successful penetration of a Columbian drug ring by an agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Miami.

“I wrote Swordfish for a variety of reasons,” McClintick explains in a note on sources and methods that itself tells the fascinating tale of how he reported the story (much of the dialogue is painstakingly reconstructed, not just from transcripts of wiretaps, but from complicated conversations with various parties about the about the contexts in which those conversations took place).

“It was an opportunity to tell the story of a group of intriguing people living through a time of crisis. It was an opportunity to study, from the inside, an agency of the United States Government under siege from a great international menace. It was an opportunity to write about one of the most intractable social and moral issues of the late 20th century — the drug plague.”

As a Wall Street Journal reporter for eleven years, McClintick absorbed that newspaper’s sense of what constitutes an adequate explanation of a set of facts — the fairest and most sophisticated in the news business. As he wrote in his first book, the Journal is “one of the relatively few publications in the world that encourages and enables its writers and editors to practice journalism as a profession rather than as an assembly-line craft.”

(Significantly, the Journal is the only English-language newspaper to have evinced significant interest in the story of the Harvard Russia project. It published authoritative front-page stories in 1997 and 2004, both by Carla Anne Robbins.)

Those books, elaborating the canons of fairness and accuracy on projects of steadily increasing complexity, handily qualify McClintick as a Bigfoot, a term journalists reserve for members of their tribe who have won the right to deal with the principals in the stories they cover on more or less equal terms, either by dint of the newspapers for which they work or the importance of books they are expected to publish.

Moscow in the mid-90s was a fabulous story, a goldrush of epic proportions. The Yeltsin government, seeking to render impossible a return to state control of the economy, sold most of the nation’s productive assets for a fraction of their value to a handful of savvy insiders who quickly became billionaires. Today they are collectively known as oligarchs.

But what makes Harvard’s involvement so interesting is its human dimension. It is essentially the story of a friendship between two of the brightest among the rising generation of economists, Lawrence Summers and Andrei Shleifer. They met and became fast friends in 1979, when Summers was a Harvard teaching fellow and Shleifer was a sophomore student, having emigrated with his parents from the former Soviet Union only two years before.

Seventeen years later, Shleifer was teaching at Harvard and advising Yeltsin on behalf of the US, while Summers was coordinating US policy towards Russia as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury. And five years after that, Summers was named president of Harvard University.

All that intervened was a USAID investigation of Shleifer’s Russian investments (and those of his wife, his deputy and his deputy’s wife and father), which led to the collapse of the project in 1997, and, over Harvard’s vehement objections, the lawsuit brought by the US Attorney in Boston in 2000.

Shleifer, too, has continued to function at a high level, winning the John Bates Clark medal in 1999 for having made a substantial contribution to economics before the age of 40, gaining a named chair at Harvard, becoming editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a leading journal of the American Economic Association, and last month publishing a book vigorously defending the advice he gave to the government of Boris Yeltsin — A Normal Country: Russia After Communism.

Finally, McClintick is well-qualified to undertake to tell this complicated story whole in one other dimension. He is a 1962 graduate of Harvard College: close enough to the university to be a member of the largely honorary board of incorporators of Harvard’s alumni magazine; sufficiently insulated from its influence by a life-long reputation as an investigative reporter.

Everybody still has to work hard on this case, especially Judge Woodlock. But McClintick’s entry onto the scene permits the rest of who have followed the story to relax a little, secure in the conviction that, once justice has been served in the courtroom, the whole episode will be placed in context in a larger sphere.

There are, after all, severe limits to what can be told in a courtroom. As the great physicist Richard Feynman once remarked, “A very great deal more truth can become known than can be proved.”

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