Tired of the Clinton impeachment follies?
So was Dick Polman.
When the veteran national political reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer was offered a chance to take a semester off from his job, he leapt at the opportunity.
And he got lucky. Polman was chosen from a field of 17 Inquirer staffers to spend the semester at Penn as the 1999 Richard Burke Fellow. The Burke Fellowship program, now in its fifth year, lets Inquirer reporters spend a semester auditing classes and mentoring undergraduate students.
Dick Polman in his office at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Photo by Candace diCarlo
Polman heard about the fellowship while in the middle of what turned out to be a full year of scandal surrounding the President's relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. "It was a good time - and my only chance - to get off the merry-go-round," he said.
At Penn, Polman is taking four courses. Two of them, History Professor Sheldon Hackney's course on American identity and the writing course taught by Kelly Writers House Fellow Gay Talese, relate to his work as a journalist; the other two, English Professor Jon Katz' course on comedy filmmakers and a Law School course on law and the Holocaust, he is taking out of pure curiosity.
The courses give him a chance to deepen his expertise and to broaden his own personal knowledge.
On the expertise side, he said, "Hackney's course looks at the big-picture stuff about who we are. I hope that some of the themes and material will live between the lines of what I write in the future."
The course on law and the Holocaust, which explores how ideology can distort a legal system, also assuages a bit of guilt on Polman's part. "In some ways I regretted not having gone to law school, with its intellectual rigor," he said.
And the course on "Comedy Auteurs" he's taking just for pleasure. "I'm a film junkie, and I thought if I could get insights into comedy, it'd be fun," he said.
But why would a working journalist take a writing course? "Having written professionally for 25 years, I thought I'd pick up a few tips from a master," he said. "[Talese's] general take on how to work is close to what I've been doing, which is to put a human face on the story."
And as he is picking up Talese's knowledge, so will he offer his to Penn students. He is now meeting with small groups of Daily Pennsylvanian beat reporters to discuss journalistic technique and offer advice. "I have no great dogma to hurl at them," he said. "I just want to say, 'Look, here are some things that have worked well for me.'"
Inquirer metro section columnist and former Burke Fellow Tom Ferrick Jr. encouraged Polman to apply. "He said it was an extremely valuable breather and gave him a chance to live outside the box," Polman said.
The fellowship has also given Polman a valuable breather not on the course schedule. "It's the first time in my life I've joined a health club," he said.
However, it has not completely gotten him off the Clinton merry-go-round. Despite his assertion that "just as I think most Americans feel they've heard all they could stand [about the scandal], I think I've said all I could say," he ended up spending Valentine's Day weekend back at work, writing a post-impeachment wrap-up and analysis for the Sunday Inquirer.
Originally published on February 25, 1999