Boston's Alternative Source! image!
[talking politics]

Compassionate iconoclasm
Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon, author of a new book about Eleanor Roosevelt, is on George W. Bush’s short list to be named to the UN Commission on Human Rights — a position first held by ER


She had developed a formidable reputation for her independence of mind,” writes Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon of Eleanor Roosevelt in her new book A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Random House). As it happens, Glendon could have been just as easily writing about herself.

Glendon’s independent-mindedness has been the subject of much discussion over the years. Early in her career, she worked as a lawyer for the civil-rights movement’s Freedom Riders during the summer of 1964; more recently, she served as Pope John Paul II’s emissary to the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. Her staunch pro-life position has drawn the ire of feminists, but she is also known to rail against the world-wide “feminization of poverty.” Catholic Alliance president and former Boston mayor Raymond Flynn lauds Glendon’s “commitment to Catholic social and economic justice.” As part of that tradition, Glendon has always been something of an iconoclastic moralist. Recently, after receiving the prestigious Marianist Award from the University of Dayton, Glendon thanked the Catholic institution for the honor and then proceeded to remind the audience, “In the affluent West, we tend to concentrate criticism on the rights we don’t violate, such as torture and slavery, but we don’t say much about freedom from hunger and deprivation.”

Now, according to conservative sources, Glendon is on the Bush administration’s “short list” to fill the position once held by Eleanor Roosevelt: that of US representative to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Glendon acknowledges that she’d be open to serving the Bush administration in that capacity — one that requires only a few months a year and would enable her to stay at Harvard. “The US representative to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, whomever that is, will hold the job that Eleanor Roosevelt first held,” she says, speaking to the Phoenix by telephone. “Of course, I would find that tremendously exciting.”

Glendon's book chronicles the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an international document modeled, in part, on the American Bill of Rights. The time was 1948, during that brief period marked by cautious hope between the end of World War II and the full onset of the Cold War. Glendon focuses on four of the drafters of the document: Réne Cassin of France, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; Peng-chun Chang of China; Charles Malik of Lebanon, a philosophy professor turned diplomat; and Roosevelt herself. While the events described in the book took place half a century ago, the points raised by the Declaration resonate today — from the issue of human rights in China to the harsh fact of slavery in Sudan. Accordingly, Glendon’s book both sheds light on historical events and illuminates her own approach to human-rights issues and diplomacy.

Glendon had already published Abortion and Divorce in Western Law (Harvard University Press, 1987), which won the Scribes Book Award, and Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (Free Press, 1991), among other books. She began her latest work planning to write a rather formal legal study of the Declaration; but the more she tried to research the history of the Declaration of Human Rights, the less she found. “I wanted to go get a book on it from the library, and I found there wasn’t one,” she says, adding that Roosevelt aficionados have also neglected the subject. “The biographers of Eleanor Roosevelt have left off with the death of FDR and her leaving the White House.” Notably, Glendon’s title relates not only to the work of the declaration’s authors, but also to Mrs. Roosevelt’s effort to create a new life for herself after her husband’s death.

Glendon’s political outlook combines both the pro-life position for which she’s become well known and Catholicism’s historic commitment to social and economic justice — its advocacy of the rights of the poor and its opposition to the death penalty. In Eleanor Roosevelt, Glendon has always detected something of a kindred sensibility. Glendon grew up in Dalton, Massachusetts, where her father, a union organizer, was the first Democratic chairman of the Board of Selectmen. She actually attended one of Mrs. Roosevelt’s speeches on the United Nations as a first-year student at Mount Holyoke in the mid 1950s. “The chance to see her made a lasting impression on me,” Glendon recalls. “This was a time when we’d been through the McCarthy period and people had a negative attitude toward things international, such as the United Nations.”

But the other players involved in the writing of the Universal Declaration also attracted her interest. Particularly inspiring was the relationship between the Nobel Peace Prize–winning Cassin and the philosopher-diplomat Malik. Cassin, a Jew and a Zionist, served as an adviser to General Charles de Gaulle in the French Resistance; he lost 29 family members to the Nazis. Malik, meanwhile, was a Christian Arab from Lebanon, who became an existentialist, an academic, and eventually the spokesman for the Arab League. The two were charged with drafting the Declaration just as the international crisis over Palestine came to a head in 1948. Despite their differences over this issue, Cassin and Malik managed to keep working together.

“They did not let that huge difference get in the way of their cooperating relationship in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” marvels Glendon. “I found that moving. I wonder how many diplomats that we have today would be able to pull that off.”

Those In Boston’s legal community who know Glendon say the law professor herself has the ability to apply a scrupulous sense of fairness to people across the ideological spectrum — not unlike the diplomats of the Declaration she so admires.

“She’s a woman of principle and not a partisan,” says Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. “She often supports people with whom she disagrees. She is a genuine moderate who can’t be put in a pigeonhole.”

In that spirit, Glendon’s research is as likely to rankle the Wall Street Journal editorial page on the right as the Lucy Parsons Center set on the left. On the one hand, Glendon’s research shows that, contrary to the arguments of some anti-Communists, provisions in the Declaration relating to economic rights — “the right to social security,” “the right to work,” and the right to an “adequate” standard of living — were included at everyone’s urging and not simply to appease the Soviet Union and its allies. “There was no objection by anyone in the world, including the United States, on the right to work,” says Glendon. “Mrs. Roosevelt saw [these provisions] merely as a continuation of her husband’s New Deal. FDR in his State of the Union address in 1944 had actually spoken of a second Bill of Rights that we needed to fulfill our promise as a democracy.”

Her research provides a rebuke to the left as well. “You often hear from political leaders in certain Asian and Islamic countries that ‘these [provisions] don’t apply to us because we weren’t there at their writing, that this is just another form of colonialism,’ ” says Glendon. “What I found when I got back was kind of a mixed picture. It wasn’t true that Asian and Islamic countries weren’t represented there.” Glendon cites the participation of six Asian nations, nine Islamic nations, and 21 Latin American nations — the largest contingent present — to buttress her point that there was “considerable diversity” in the UN at the time it approved the Declaration.

Glendon maintains that partisans on both the right and the left misinterpret Roosevelt’s legacy. “As one of my friends says, it’s tough times for the dead,” she says. “We pick and choose those things that we want to remember about a dead person that correspond to our agenda.” On the right, some partisans too easily brand Roosevelt a Communist, due to her outspoken commitment to progressive issues. “What is left out is her very staunch anti-communism at the United Nations during the period I write about,” says Glendon. The author also dismisses claims made by other Roosevelt biographers that the First Lady was a lesbian. “They don’t give the full picture of Eleanor Roosevelt as somebody who entered into very close, very emotional relationships with all types of people — very close, but probably not physical with what I can tell from the record,” says Glendon. “She has one of the largest FBI files in history. If there was anything to these allegations, then J. Edgar Hoover would have been on to it.”

Republican and Democratic sources say it would be politically wise to tap Glendon for a human-rights post. “She would be a terrific choice for a position like the human-rights representative for the kinds of issues that mainstream Catholicism cares about,” says Democratic strategist Henry Sheinkopf, adding that the job would enable the Bush administration to highlight Glendon’s commitment to her religion without focusing on the abortion issue. “An appointment like that would reduce the perceived atmosphere of anti-Catholicism which has been apparent since George Bush’s visit to Bob Jones University last year. Remember [that] 50 percent of the Reagan coalition — Northern Catholics — did not stand with George W. Bush in the presidential election.” (Bush, for example, lost the heavily Catholic swing state of Michigan.)

Michael Novak — himself a former ambassador to the UN’s Human Rights Commission, a religious scholar, and the author of The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Free Press, 1993), says that Glendon’s experience writing A World Made New has prepared her well for the job he once held. “Nobody has characterized the struggle to get it written better than she has,” says Novak, who holds the Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Given this knowledge of the background of human rights and the UN system, Mary Ann Glendon would be a great person to head the US delegation to the Human Rights Commission.”

Legal experts, such as Dershowitz, say that Glendon has the intellectual caliber to serve on the Supreme Court or elsewhere on the federal bench. At this point, she disavows interest in that kind of appointment. It wouldn’t be surprising, though, if Glendon’s new book clinched the final decision by Bush-administration officials to offer her the UN post. And were she to accept such an offer, she would join Governor Paul Cellucci as part of Bush’s diplomatic corps. Massachusetts moderates apparently have worldwide appeal.

Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

Issue Date: March 1-8, 2001

home | feedback | about the phoenix | find the phoenix | advertising info | privacy policy

© 2002 Phoenix Media Communications Group