In a new memoir, the former Penn president recalls how the campus crisis known as the “water buffalo incident” became fodder in a conservative campaign to block his appointment as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
By Sheldon Hackney

Illustration by Daniel Chang


We rounded the corner of the broad corridor in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on June 25, 1993, approaching Room 430 where my confirmation hearing was to be held. Suddenly we were aware of a crowd and the loud buzz of conversation. People were standing two abreast in a long line stretching almost the length of that mammoth hallway. Martha Chowning, who had worked as an advance-person in the Clinton campaign and was now the liaison to the White House for the National Endowment for the Humanities, had met me as my taxi pulled up outside, and she was trying to prepare me for the scene I was about to encounter. The hearing room was jammed, she said, and the news media were there in force.

My anxiety level, already high, began to soar. Martha added that some of the crowd had just come from a hostile press conference staged by my opposition. Presiding at that counter-hearing were Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition—who had dubbed me “The Pope of Political Correctness”—and Floyd Brown of the Family Research Council, the creator of the infamous Willie Horton advertisement for George Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign. Fresh from a successful “Borking” of my friend, Lani Guinier, the Penn law professor whose nomination to be assistant attorney general for civil rights they had forced President Clinton to withdraw, they were determined to make my confirmation another major battle in the “Culture War.” Though a reluctant combatant, I was by then the most visible gargoyle decorating the battlements of the Ivory Tower.

I had been mocked on national radio by Rush Limbaugh, denounced in hundreds of newspapers and Newsweek by syndicated columnist George Will, excoriated in The Washington Post by Charles Krauthammer, flayed alive for television by Pat Buchanan on Firing Line, and otherwise held up for scorn and derision. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the house organ of movement conservatives, had written seven—count ’em, seven!—unflattering editorials about me and the University over the span of a few weeks in April, May, and June, while I stood blindfolded and lashed to the stake. John Leo of U.S. News and World Report created a “Sheldon Award,” which he annually bestows on the college president who most closely approximates my profile in cowardice. I know there are people who think it is worse to be ignored than to be criticized, but I am not among them.

Thinking back on that spring-from-hell, I recall it not only as the worst time of my life, but as an out-of-body experience. I followed the story in the press of some idiot named Hackney, who was either a left-wing tyrant or a namby-pamby liberal with a noodle for a spine. My critics couldn’t decide which. Not only did I not recognize him, I didn’t much like him either. I remember laughing at the headline of a story in the New York Post that trumpeted “Loony Lani and Crackpot Prez.” I did not think that Lani was loony, of course, but it was even harder for me to realize that I was the crackpot prez.

How could a mild-mannered, unassuming Ivy League president get into such a mess? Even more interesting, how could he get out?

The story that follows answers those questions. It is an odyssey of sorts, an account of my journey, both geographical and intellectual, from Philadelphia to Washington.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 04/28/03