Catching up with Kaczynski

Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber and a 1962 Harvard graduate, on his way to court in 1996. Associated Press
Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber and a 1962 Harvard graduate, on his way to court in 1996. Associated Press
Posted: June 22, 2012

If it hadn't been for the Unabomber, we surely would have slipped in and out of town unnoticed.

The Harvard class of 1962 had its 50th reunion recently, but its most famous alumnus, Ted Kaczynski, was unable to attend. It seems he's in a maximum-security prison in Colorado.

But Ted did manage to send in an entry for the reunion book, listing his occupation as "prisoner" and his "awards" as "Eight life sentences, issued by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California."

Suspecting the whole thing was a joke, I asked our class secretary, Chris Wadsworth, who assured me that it wasn't. The questionnaire had been returned in a prison envelope.

"When we saw where it was from, we weren't that worried," Wadsworth told me, smiling over a buffet lunch. "But we did open it pretty carefully."

Less than a week later, Kaczynski's entry made the Boston Globe. The resulting brouhaha prompted Harvard to offer an official apology.

Personally, I wasn't sure what all the fuss was about. Kaczynski did graduate in good standing, and the entry hardly glorifies him. But it did remind me of how preoccupied folks can get with nonevents even when there is so much else that's worth worrying about.

The theme of the reunion concerned the decline of ethics — in government, the professions, and just about anywhere else one wants to look. The alums chose the topic in a pre-reunion poll. (It wasn't a big carousing crowd.)

We weren't talking about the indictable stuff as much as the slippery slope that seems to get slipperier by the day.

"Trust in our government has reached an all-time low," said the keynote speaker, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, "due in large part to the funneling of huge amounts of money into our government and shifts in campaign-finance rules. More than ever before, Americans believe that money buys results in Congress."

Some statistics: More than 98 percent of all donations to super-PACs come from 196 people. The top 1 percent of the country's earners donate 10 times what the remaining 99 percent give. Our class' one sitting congressman, Minnesota Republican Thomas Petri, noted that the cost of running a congressional campaign in his district has gone from about $32,000 in 1972, when he first won his seat, to some $2 million today.

While some of this may be due to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which blew a hole in the hull of campaign-finance restrictions, Lessig sees the problems as deeper than that. "Citizens United may have shot the body," he said, "but the body was already cold."

Lessig's proposed solution is a form of public financing in which citizen donations are matched by larger amounts of government funding. It seems about as likely to make it through the current Congress as Ted is to make it to the 75th reunion.

From there, we moved on to cheerier subjects, such as pharmaceutical companies' showering physicians with free samples, dinners, and more; the U.S. Supreme Court's exempting itself from any code of judicial ethics; and even whether Harvard's own investment policies support destructive agricultural practices.

Not that Harvard has the answers. The nation has spent the last 12 years under presidents with degrees from the university: George W. Bush from the Business School and Barack Obama from the Law School. And regardless of how the next election turns out, there is no relief in sight: Mitt Romney has joint degrees from the Business and Law Schools.

Malcolm Salter, a '62 alum and Harvard business professor, said, "Capitalism and democracy are at risk, and we have to do something about it." No one at the reunion seemed to disagree with him. While locking up Ted Kaczynski was surely the right move, however, it gets a lot more complicated after that. And worrying about Ted's reunion book entry won't get us very far.

Paul Jablow is a former Inquirer reporter and editor who lives in Bryn Mawr. He can be reached at jake@pauljablow.com.

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