In an exquisitely-depicted, painful scene in John Williams’ novel Stoner (1965) the character for which the novel is named freezes in the face of a professor’s question. It’s Stoner’s first literature course, and the professor, Sloane, has just read aloud Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 to the class. Sloane calls on Stoner and demands that he state its meaning. Here’s a paragraph from that passage:
William Stoner realized that for several moments he had been holding his breath. He expelled it gently, minutely aware of his clothing moving upon his body as his breath went out of his lungs. He looked away from Sloane about the room. Light slanted from the windows and settled upon the faces of his fellow students, so that the illumination seemed to come from within them and go out against a dimness; a student blinked, and a thin shadow fell upon a cheek whose down had caught the sunlight. Stoner became aware that his fingers were unclenching their hard grip on his desk-top. He turned his hands about under his gaze, marveling at their brownness, at the intricate way the nails fit into his blunt finger-ends; he thought he could feel the blood flowing invisibly through the tiny veins and arteries, throbbing delicately and precariously from his fingertips through his body.
In the spring of 1977, I sat in a similar state of frozen, distracted stupefaction in Archibald Cox’s Constitutional Law class. It makes me conscious of time’s passing that I might need to explain that name, but the background will become relevant.
Cox had been the special Watergate prosecutor. When he subpoenaed Richard Nixon’s now infamous tapes, the President decided on October 20, 1973 to have him fired in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre. He twice delegated the order to acting heads of the Department of Justice (Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus), but both men refused and resigned. Nixon’s third choice, Robert Bork, carried out the order.
Cox’s professional, dignified bearing struck me at the time, as it did the entire nation. It was, I suppose, what one would expect of a Harvard Law professor. He’d temporarily left the law school for that appointment, and he returned after the so-called massacre. Not four years later, I was a student in his Con Law course.
During class, Cox would expatiate for a while before bowing to the Socratic Method mandate by posing questions and calling on students by name. Soft-spoken, he wasn’t a dynamic teacher, but he had a deep understanding of often thorny material. I escaped his focus for perhaps the first month of the semester.
I didn’t recognize the name of the student who had been summoned to explain something I myself hadn’t well understood, but I felt for him. The room went silent. The poor slob couldn’t even bring himself to speak, never mind attempt an answer. The silence continued.
Then it dawned on me that Cox might have mispronounced my name, “Spratt.” Had he misread it? As soon as the possibility occurred to me, I knew I was right. Maybe he’d thought the short “a” in a name with so many consonants was too vulgar to say aloud.
I was incapable of speaking. It seemed to me I needed to explain why I hadn’t answered right away, but it could only sound like an excuse. Then there was my slight grasp of the concept Cox had been discussing. Indeed, what was the question? I couldn’t remember. It had been displaced by sympathy for that nonexistent student, speculation and finally, shame. I blush easily, so guilt must have radiated out from me in waves of misery.
Do I correctly remember an exasperated outlet of breath from Cox as he finally lasered another student?
When class ended, just as happened with William Stoner, no one spoke to me. Now, forty years later, I wonder if anyone else remembers. Have I lodged in someone’s memory as the guy who was too cowardly even to say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know”?
Such a predicament is easily handled when you’re not the one in it. Suppose that instead of being the student in the spotlight, I’d been a friend watching on. After class, talking it over with him, no doubt I’d have dropped two pearls of wisdom on him. First: “Next time, when you realize a professor has mispronounced your name, just say something like, ‘Sorry, I didn’t realize you’d said my name. I’m used to hearing it pronounced a little differently.’” Naturally, the crushed friend would point out that by then his brain had clamped down and stifled speech.
My second pearl would have been: “Next time, if there is a next time, go speak to the professor at the end of class, apologize and explain.”
Why didn’t I do just that—talk to him after class? One possible answer would do me no credit. Having endured such a public shaming, the one good thing that could come out of it was that Cox would never call on me again. In fact, he never did. Had I gone forward to explain, it would have guaranteed he would. By keeping quiet, I spared myself almost an entire semester of pre-exam anxiety.
Did I make this calculation? It crossed my mind, but I’m confident it didn’t determine the outcome. Something else that’s harder to explain did.
How would that scenario have played out if I’d had vision? When Cox called on me, I could have had clues he was directing the question at me. First, he might have been looking my way. I’m not sure. I’d never spoken to him, and so he might well not have known what I looked like. But at least some students might have recognized my name in Cox’s mispronunciation and looked in my direction. Their stares would have made the situation plain.
Then why didn’t I go to speak to Cox at the end of class? Here I’m confronted by the embarrassment I can experience in connection with logistics. I remember times in high school, college and even after law school when I approached teachers after class, but those classrooms were manageable. The cavernous ones in law school were daunting.
One of the many subtle ways Harvard Law was good to me was that students tacitly recognized that it helped me to have the same desk in each class. In most first year courses, seats were assigned, but if I remember correctly, that wasn’t the case in Cox’s course. Even so, my fellow students let the desk I located the first day of class stay mine the rest of the semester. It was at the back, near the door. Beyond that, I had limited knowledge of the room’s layout. Naturally, I knew Cox spoke from the front and that he was a fairly substantial distance away. That knowledge gave me direction, but not certainty about how to get to him.
Whatever familiarity I had then has almost gone now, but chances are that the room had tiers of desks, each separated by a step or two. I’d need to descend the nearest aisle of steps, perhaps confirming my direction by touching the sides of chairs and desks as I progressed. It risked inadvertently touching someone, which I was loath to do.
Once I reached the bottom of the steps, would I know where Cox was standing? Would he still be there, or was he one of those professors who made quick escapes? If there, would he be distracted, either talking to other students or gathering his papers? If he was talking to other students, I’d have an unwanted audience for my abject apology and excuse. If Cox was playing with his papers, I wouldn’t hear where he was standing. Even assuming I did talk to him, I’d need to change direction to face him. That meant that when I’d finished talking, I might have lost my bearings, causing me to bumble around for the steps leading back to the exit. Maybe I’d end up on a different aisle, and so I’d be disoriented again at the top.
I didn’t seek out Cox in the days that followed, and for similar reasons: a combination of logistics (where was his office?) and intimidation. Surely the last thing he needed was to waste time on a student who had shirked his responsibility in class.
I have blind friends who do whatever it takes. Unfamiliar place? Plunge ahead anyway and eventually you’ll get where you want. Q&A session at a museum talk where the rules for when to ask questions aren’t clear? Just raise your voice when you have a question and don’t worry if it turns out you accidentally interrupt someone in mid-sentence. Far from feeling embarrassed for these friends, I admire their resolve not to let discomfort hold them back. I’m somewhat better today, but I still have a long way to go.
That day, at the age of twenty-three, I felt in some ways as shy and awkward as William Stoner starting at university after a life spent exclusively in farm country. In fact, I’d previously spoken in class many times during law school. If Cox hadn’t mispronounced my name, I certainly would have done so that time, too. But all the awkwardness I projected dissuaded me from doing the obvious right thing.
We all like to think we’d do the right thing when the situation requires, but we know, somewhere in the recesses of our memory, that we’ve often fallen short. We tend to discount anything that got in the way as an excuse. But perhaps the things that get in the way of our better selves shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Not always, anyway.
Earlier, I implied that Bork had dishonored himself by obeying President Nixon and firing Cox. Is that fair? Should he have followed the example of the two men who had refused ahead of him and resigned? He might have believed in all sincerity that Cox was wrong to issue a subpoena that challenged or could undermine the President’s authority. After all, a compromised leader exposes a nation to instability and external dangers. For me, the independence of Cox as special prosecutor trumped such concerns, but there are people who make the argument.
Or maybe Bork’s personal circumstances made him vulnerable to pressure from above. Setting aside the three real-life men involved (I haven’t researched their personal situations), the first two might have been financially secure, while the third’s finances were precarious, so that losing his job could put his and his family’s welfare at risk. Few people are rich enough that they aren’t beholden to their jobs for income. It’s why so many of us don’t live out our dreams, why so many stay in a rut, why we make questionable, sometimes unethical decisions.
Then there’s a possibility that the real-life Bork had something at dinner that evening that didn’t agree with him, with the consequence of Judge Jerome Frank’s famous quip about justice being what the judge ate for breakfast. Or maybe he was in the wrong phase of his circadian cycle.
In the moment, there are so many factors favoring passivity that we admire a person who makes a sacrifice to do something honorable. It doesn’t happen very often. If it did, we wouldn’t need codes of honor. We might not even have the word.
In the scheme of things, my lapse was insignificant, like most such moments. The stakes were small. By contrast, in 1987, thirteen years after the Saturday Night Massacre and ten years after my Archibald Cox moment, Bork paid the price for his decision to fire Cox when the Senate rejected his nomination by Ronald Reagan for a seat on the Supreme Court.
Regardless of its insignificance, while I can explain away my Archibald Cox moment, it remains for me an instance of moral failure. Harsh? Perhaps I should call it the failure of a dream—one of those dreams one has for oneself. “Moral failure” will do for shorthand.
But in moments when I have perspective, I’m glad of the times my compass kept me more or less true. No, not glad. Relieved.
An anecdote. Late that semester, Cox looked out the window midway through a lecture and saw it was snowing. Just a flurry, but still, it was late spring. He cried out, “Oh! My tomatoes!”