The Professor Who Was `God' ... Once

A Yale Grad Writes Her Hero's Biography

March 20, 2006|By ADRIAN BRUNE; Special To The Courant

Yale humanities professor Charles Hill has been near the center of every major revolution of the past 40 years and has dozens of stories to tell. Yet he seldom discusses anything outside of Machiavelli, Herodotus and civilization.

Not that there aren't clues.

There's the "Distinguished Speaker'' plaque from the Air Force Academy; the high-backed wooden chair in his office bearing the State Department seal; and, especially telling, a snapshot of a lone briefcase-carrying Hill leaving a 1988 press conference at Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv, Israel.

"Attention isn't something that's very interesting to me. It seems to use a lot of time that could be spent on something else,'' Hill recently said during an interview in his office. ``Ronald Reagan had a plaque on his desk which read, `There's no limit to what you accomplish, as long as you don't care who gets the credit.'''

To most, the soft-spoken, decorous diplomat-turned-Yale professor might appear to be a Cold War intellectual, a behind-the-scenes government type who dutifully served his country under several administrations in China, Vietnam, the Middle East and Washington.

But for Molly Worthen, a freshman who took one of his courses in 2000, Hill's stories and his views on international affairs begged exploration. By the end of the ``History and Politics'' seminar, she had become so intrigued by Hill's personal narrative, she decided to spend every moment chronicling it until her 2004 graduation.

In doing so, Worthen became the only student of Hill's to ever throw open the door to his complete -- and formerly classified -- life. That story is now ``The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill,'' a biography of a rare Washington figure who would rather discuss any subject other than himself. The 368-page book was published last month by Houghton Mifflin.

Acclaimed by some, who call it an eye-opening take on the high-level inner-workings of the government, and excoriated by a few (Publisher's Weekly called it a book in which ``the reader is drowned in youthful banalities and occasionally naivete,''), Worthen's biography of Hill attempts to scrutinize an important career while charting her changing relationship with a teacher she once idealized. At the same time, ``The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost'' tests the theory of Grand Strategy -- a class at Yale based on the theory that the virtuous, wise and brave must take note of life's details but always remain in the realm of ideas -- on its very own teacher.

"Charlie saw himself as a person living out the philosophy of grand strategy, and it empowered him on to great things in his professional life,'' said Worthen, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. in American religious history at Yale. ``But as much as grand strategy did for the country and his career, it caused poisonous effects on his personal life.

The Ideological Freshman

The first week of her freshmen course with Hill, a youthful, pliable Worthen inscribed the words "Charles Hill is God!'' on the inside of her notebook, finding his ability to dissect a complicated world to be mesmerizing, almost divine.

Worthen wasn't alone. The professor who always seemed so assured of the right path had a tremendous effect on his charges. Many of them requested him as their sophomore adviser and pledged to take the Grand Strategy course -- a one-year examination, complete with summer internship, of the basic tenets of empires. One even joined the Marines after Hill counseled him on the military's pros and cons.

Worthen, however, just wanted to study and write about Hill, even after he gave her a C- on her first paper, telling her, ``At times, you almost begin to analyze the text, only to invariably wander off into pretentious displays of pseudo-psychological erudition.''

A biography class Worthen took later in her academic career, taught by Hill's Yale colleague John Lewis Gaddis, provided the serendipitous moment for the young scholar. When she approached Gaddis about tackling Hill's character for a long-form project, Gaddis recalls saying that Hill wouldn't agree to it.

"I almost fell off my chair when I heard him say `yes,''' he said.

Hill opened up his personal archives -- more than 20,000 pages of verbatim records of every conversation he heard or shared -- which he had previously used to help former Secretary of State George Schultz write his memoir. Yet, a biography or autobiography never crossed Hill's mind. ``I just agreed to keep being cooperative,'' he said.

"I've found most of my colleagues in government and journalism want to do that [write a book]. But I don't much like looking back at things.''

The Worldly Wise Academic

Hill's desire to avoid the rear-view mirror is a theme that reverberates throughout ``The Man on Whom Nothing was Lost.'' Born into a professional family in the small, working-class town of Bridgeton, N.J., Morton Charles Hill formed his world view through the books he read, World War II, summers spent working construction in Ocean City, N.J., and as an undergraduate at Brown University.

Planning on spending his life in academia after finishing a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania and enrolling in an American Civilization graduate program, Hill decided to join the Foreign Service in the early 1960s to serve his country and escape his overbearing mother-in-law. After a couple of unsatisfactory posts, the U.S. stationed Hill and his then-wife Martha in Hong Kong, where he served for three years as a China watcher during Mao Tse-tung's Cultural Revolution.

Following China, he did a stint as a speechwriter for Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in South Vietnam, then one for President Nixon's secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. During the 1980s, Hill shuffled between Israel and Washington, while President Ronald Reagan tried to negotiate peace in the Middle East.

After George H.W. Bush entered the White House in 1992, Hill retired from the Foreign Service and came to Yale as a lecturer when his second wife, Norma Thompson, joined the political science department. Grand Strategy, one of Yale's most infamous courses -- if only for its hawkish tendencies on a dove-like campus -- had its debut in 2000 and has since served as key training for diplomats in waiting.

Now 70, Charles Hill will never know the effect he has had on his students, especially Worthen. He steadfastly maintains that he will go to his grave without reading his biography. He's not interested in looking back.

"His career was one of the man in the shadows,'' Worthen said. ``Since very early in his career, he's had a vivid sense of his own role in history and been in a position to record history, but he'll never be overly self-important.''