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Lunch at the Four Seasons: Herbert London

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-12-05

Herbert London's eyes well up with tears whenever he sees her, which is often, since he lives in Battery Park City.

"She symbolizes everything that America stands for," the president of the Hudson Institute, among the country's prominent think tanks, said. "She is beautiful, she radiates warmth and hope, and she welcomes you to the land of the free. And what she stands for is worth defending every single hour of the day."

The one that inspires him is, of course, the 151-foot creation of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel presented in 1876 by the French government on the centennial of America's independence. For Mr. London, the Statue of Liberty is an enduring metaphor for freedom.

"And that freedom is being endangered around the world," he said. "I'm very, very worried about the spread of totalitarian philosophy in many regions. The rise of Wahhabism, for example, is worrying - the sect is based on a fanatical interpretation of Islam. The rise of intolerance of other faiths is troubling. We're fighting a war of powerful ideas, and not only terrorism. It comes down to whether we will be able to maintain an open society."

Mr. London paused, then said, "The question is, what will it take to preserve freedom at home and to promote it elsewhere?"

He looked around the restaurant, where several members of New York's business community, who are longtime supporters of the 44-year-old institute, were dining and conversing in hushed tones that suggested high-power deal making.

"Successful deals, successful capitalism - these things depend on the opportunities that only open societies can create," Mr. London said. "The nature of political systems clearly has a strong influence on economics. Open societies lead to flourishing economies."

Although he laces his conversations with frequent references to economics, the Brooklyn-born Mr. London was trained as a historian at Columbia University, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees. He then obtained a doctorate in history at New York University.

His passion for history and politics was inculcated in him by his parents, Jack,a blue-collar worker, and Esta, who mostly tended to her only child. Both parents encouraged him to cast his intellectual net wide.

"My parents were solid supporters of FDR," Mr. London said. "Our home was always filled with vigorous debate. There was great vitality in our home, and I grew up surrounded as much by political discussions as by deep parental love."

In 1972, however, he parted with his parents' politics.

That was the year a former senator, George McGovern, was nominated by the Democrats to run against President Nixon. It was a turbulent time, and a new counterculture had sprung up. Mr. London did not subscribe to this ethos.

"It was culturally and politically an overheated period," he said. "I thought that the Democratic Party had left me. I thought that the Democratic Party was no longer a party of opportunity. I began feeling closer to Ronald Reagan's brand of Republicanism. I started to look for ways to develop a national conversation that synthesized various disciplines."

During that search, Mr. London recalled the influence of the writer Jacques Barzun, who had taught him at Columbia.

"He spoke eloquently and sensibly, and I was intoxicated by his brand of ideas," Mr. London said.

And so it was that Mr. London started the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, where his 50 or so students designed their own academic programs under his supervision. The idea was to encourage openness, freshness of thought, spirited debate, and a keen spirit of inquiry. (The program now has an enrollment of 2,500 students.)

Even as he pursued an academic career - one in which he received several teaching awards - Mr. London traveled widely. He went to Indonesia, where he witnessed the overthrow of President Sukarno by the equally corrupt military general, Suharto. He went to Australia to see for himself the resistance encountered by new immigrants.

"I also saw that America was being increasingly viewed as an interloper in many parts of the world," Mr. London said. "What could we do to assure others that we were an open society with democratic values that could be a reference for societies everywhere?"

Mr. London became convinced that the answer to that question lay in electoral politics. He sought the Republican nomination to run against Governor Cuomo in 1990. His campaign was so strapped for cash that he had to enlist his wife, Vicki, to be his main operative. The rhetoric from rivals in his own party was rough. The campaign trail was rough.

At points in the campaign, constituents living outside the city asked, "Are you one of those pinkos from the university?"

He came close but didn't win the GOP nomination. Instead, he ran against Mr. Cuomo on the Conservative line in 1990, finding that in politics also-rans aren't especially lauded.

And in another campaign, this one for state comptroller, Mr. London - a veteran civil-rights activist - found himself being attacked by Democrat Carl McCall as being the New York equivalent of "Bull Connor," the notorious segregationist Alabama sheriff.

"I wasn't naive about politics, but I was surprised at the degree of hostility," Mr. London said.

So when he was invited to become president of the Hudson Institute in 1997, Mr. London saw an opportunity to meld his academic background, political experience, and passion for public policy issues.

"The Hudson Institute and I both embrace the idea that a multidisciplinary approach to the study of civilization is critical," Mr. London said. "Economics and social science by themselves don't give us a full understanding of the manifold ways in which human behavior develops. Our job is to continually examine questions such as, 'What have we become as a society?' and 'Where are we going?' and 'How do we preserve our values?'"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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