In The Man From UNCLE, the 1960s TV series about secret agents who worked for the United Network Command for Law Enforcement, the entrance to the UNCLE’s New York headquarters was through an “ordinary tailor’s shop somewhere in the east 40s.” As visitors to The National Association of Scholars headquarters in Princeton know, for most of the last decade, NAS has employed similar camouflage. We have been inconspicuously tucked away in a suite of offices above Nick Hilton’s Clothiers on Witherspoon Street. No sign betrayed our whereabouts. To enter or to leave, one had to brush past the fashionable blazers, yachting attire, and madras shirts.
Nick Hilton kept an eye on things. If anyone from THRUSH (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) or the AAUP (as it is also known) showed up pretending to browse for cufflinks, Nick would alert us.
NAS, however, has decided to come out of the cold. We are leaving our covert Witherspoon Street headquarters and moving to more commodious space in an office park across from the Princeton Airport. Our new address is 1 Airport Place, Building F, which sounds a bit like a hanger for our dirigible, but is really a white-columned building housing a collection of software engineering outfits.
So long glamour. Goodbye ambiance.
We are gaining much needed space, and the new office layout is a great improvement. True, our labyrinthine arrangements on Witherspoon were perfect for disorienting THRUSH infiltrators, but the Cold War is over and we think it is time to signal a new spirit of openness. In fact, AAUP President and self proclaimed “tenured radical” Cary Nelson has accepted an invitation to debate me at the next national meeting of the NAS in January 2009. Lately I have been replying to AAUP apologist John K. Wilson’s articles and he, mine. A new spirit of civil respect is flowering between the long frost-bitten opponents on either side of the academic culture wars. This spirit is captured in our wide-open space.
While we will still be in Princeton, we will be at the outer edges, closer to the quiet hamlet of Rocky Hill. It is a place that pre-dates the American Revolution but escaped the thundering confrontations between Washington and Cornwallis’s forces. Rocky Hill has no famous university, no President Wilson, nor any Albert Einstein, nor even a Cornel West to call its own. We will breathe un-academic air, which I am told improves commonsense and general lucidity.
But there is no gain without some loss. We will leave behind on Witherspoon our cherished neighbors, among them Grover Cleveland, whose gravestone in Princeton Cemetery is inexplicably adorned with Mardi Gras beads and small coins. He lies within earshot of John O’Hara, whose self-composed epithet (“Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time”) bears witness to a writer (Appointment in Samarra, Butterfield 8) who felt he didn’t get his due. Here too is Aaron Burr, another disappointed striver, and Jonathan Edwards, perhaps our greatest theologian. Kurt Gödel lies here, complete at last. The results of George Gallup’s final poll are published within these gates.
We are only moving a few miles off and we will visit our friends, but you know how it is. Instead of just dropping by to have a chat with Grover or congratulate Cheever for holding his own in Princeton’s best club, it will now take a special trip.
We’ll also be beyond walking distance of the Princeton train station, with its one track connection (“the Dinky”) to the New York-Philadelphia corridor.
As for The Man from UNCLE, it only came to mind because of that tailor-shop entrance, but when I looked it up, I came across an oddly touching essay by a middle-aged woman, C.W. Walker, in the vein of I-learned-everything-I-needed- to-know-from-_______. No one ever seems to find life’s most compelling lessons in the university, which I suppose is a good thing, but the number who take their bearings from old TV shows is faintly alarming. Ms. Walker, however, drew some wholesome conclusions from UNCLE:
*That personal commitment and moral responsibility are preferable to money and power.
* That both good and evil work covertly, and often, it requires attention and involvement to discriminate one from the other.
* That you might lose a battle, but you can still win the war, so long as you remain cool under fire and are willing to lay it all on the line.
* And that in the end, the secret of life is courage, style and a little witty repartee.
She might have learned the same things from Homer in the Odyssey, which starred an earlier version of Napoleon Solo, but no matter. If dashing young men with fountain pen radios are what it takes to stir the moral imagination, so be it.