«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Q: Feature and fact from Cora's almanac! [laughter] Weiss: Bravo! Then limit your talk to making three points, if you can. People cannot digest tons of factoids, numbers, unless they're related to a very specific point that you want to make. And speak from the heart. Show your passion. If you don't feel passionate about something, don't talk about it. That's enough. And don't talk too long! [laughter]
Weiss: Oh, my goodness, of course! Not so much in neighborhood houses, community centers or living rooms. I don't think I felt terribly intimidated there. But I'll never forget the first time I was called on at the Council on Foreign Relations [CFR], even though I had had my hand up for about three or four years. And never called on. Women were not welcome there. But I wrote out my question and read from it, and I was very intimidated. But it's an intimidating atmosphere. It's all dark suits and ties. Women were then ten percent, and not much more now—still, it's a very gendered place.
Q: A little off the topic, I want to come back to speeching, but tell me about the Council on Foreign Relations. Why would you want to be there?
Weiss: I have to remember this guy's name—it wasn't my idea. I didn't ask for it. Adele Simmons was the president of Hampshire College, where I was a trustee for her twelve years of presidency. We became very good friends. I've been going through my files, and I have found dozens of letters from her. Now there are dozens of emails, which nobody keeps. I don't know how history is going to be written in the future!
Q: I worry about that all the time!
Weiss: You see? She then became president of the MacArthur Foundation. She, because of those two presidencies, was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, where, at that time, I'm not
Q: Women? Ten percent women?
Weiss: Anyway, she nominated me. Yes. She nominated me. I had never heard of the Council on Foreign—I mean, I didn't know what I was getting into, but it sounded interesting. If it was going to deal with international relations and foreign policy, I'd be interested. So, she sent my nomination in, and she had people second it. I don't remember who they were. But [Brent] Scowcroft was the Chairman of the Nominating Committee at the Council at that time.
Q: Oh, Brent Scow— Weiss: Brent Scowcroft, was his name Brent?
Q: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Weiss: My nomination sat for four years, until he left for a government position. The next person, whoever it was, let me in. That was my introduction to the Council. I go to interesting meetings that interest me, that are relevant to the work I'm doing, or to my interests. I don't go often. The food is always good. It's free lunch. I have friends there, and I have made friends
Foundation, was speaking. The Ford Foundation is the largest foundation, except for Gates, in the world. It has a huge impact. It used to have a Peace and Security department, which it has dropped. Darren is a fabulous human being! His history is fantastic. He comes from Texas, where he had a single mom. I don't remember how many siblings. They were poor. He went to a head start pre-kindergarten program, a government-funded program. He went to the University [of Texas] in Austin. He went to law school. He's an amazing success story! Now he's the president of the billion— Q: What did he talk about?
Weiss: He talked about what Ford is interested in doing, the changes that are happening because it has just come out of a terrible president, who was just awful.
Q: Luis [Ubinas]— Weiss: Well, he was an interesting person, because he was—was he Puerto Rican? From the Bronx.
Q: Yes. Yes, Dominican, or some— Weiss: Latino. He comes out of the corporate structure. Out of Wall Street. He was not very popular. In any event, Darren is there. He's funny, he's fun, he's lively, he loves his job, and it
black suits sat on one side. The women gathered together. Wherever they sat, there were two or three women, never one single one.
Q: Interesting! Off tape the other day, you told me a story about your run-in with John McCain.
Weiss: Yes. At the Council. That was a while—a long time ago.
Q: Tell me that story. Well, tell me that story. We're here for a long time ago!
Weiss: [laughter] Everything was a long time ago!
Q: Well, today’s a springboard for then— Weiss: That's for then and now. So, McCain was invited to speak, and I went up to shake hands with him before the speech began. He refused to shake my hand. Now, John McCain was a prisoner of war, and, from '69 to '73, I ran the Committee of Liaison on Prisoners of War. It had a longer title, but that's what it was. I brought mail from his wife and family, as well as many other wives and families, to him in Hanoi, by hand. The purpose of the committee was to prevent the interruption of mail, and to increase the amount of mail that POWs [Prisoners of War] could get.
Weiss: It was an arrangement that I made.
Q: Then you had met him in Hanoi?
Weiss: He would not meet with American visitors.
Weiss: But I brought his mail. And I carried his mail to his wife back, so she got it within seventy-two hours of my arriving, or less, because that was one thing we insisted on, immediate mailing.
Q: Yes, we're going to get into that next time.
Weiss: OK, good.
Weiss: So, he knew who I was. He knew that I came out of the antiwar movement, I guess. He thought I was a traitor. He wouldn't shake my hand. When he got up to speak, formally, he referenced people who opposed America's policy. He said it in a very not nice way. He didn't mention names, but my friends knew who he was talking about. I found that very unfortunate, because one of the things that we do in life is try to support reconciliation. That's part of the peace process. But he wasn't ready, I guess. If it weren't for not just me, but the Committee, he would not have been able to write a letter every single month, because until then, they could write a letter once every whatever to his family. He would not have been able to send his artwork, which he did in the prison camp to his family. He wouldn't have gotten a letter every month from his family. So, Sy Hersh, who is a friend, says that we cared more about the prisoners of war than the government. I mean, we tried to improve their lives while they were there, knowing that they would get out.
Q: Back to the Council, I know that you're friendly with Steve (Stephen) Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel?
Q: When he, for some reason— Weiss: Wanted to run for the board.
Weiss: It would be a write-in candidate.
Weiss: So he asked me to nominate him.
Q: OK. I knew that there was a reason that I had read that. You know?
Weiss: But the point is, I would do it. Why not? You know? It would create one space for a noncorporate person! [laughs] I think I nominated Katrina for a term membership when she was young. Younger. She's still young. I've nominated a lot of people for the Council, and I think, I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I'm eighty-five percent sure, they've all gotten in. I'm not the only nominee. Nominator, I mean. Not nominee.
Q: Yes. No, people were— Weiss: There's a nominator, and then there are two or more support letters. I've been either the nominator or a supporter. But they've all gotten in.
Weiss: It starts in Princeton where Adele Simmons was the Dean of Students? I said that with a question in my voice, I think she was. In any event, she was in the hierarchy at Princeton. And Richard [A.] Falk was on the faculty.
Weiss: Dick was a friend of ours. I took him with me to Vietnam in 1972, for what Peter Arnett called the "prisoner snatch" for the return of three pilots to this country. Adele had just been named, or elected, president of Hampshire, which was a small experimental college in the Five College area, in the valley, of Western Mass [Massachusetts]. I think maybe together with Evergreen [College] on the West Coast and maybe Reed [College], it was really one of the very, very few experimental colleges in the country. Adele was going to be the next president, and she was looking for trustees to bring to the board. Richard proposed me. So she invited Peter and me for dinner.
Q: Had you met her before?
Weiss: Never! Never heard of her!
Weiss: We had dinner in the playroom. She had two or three little kids. They had a playroom,
The next thing I got was a letter inviting me to join the Board of Trustees, to which I had to be elected. But whoever was president at the time carried out her wishes. So, she brought me, she brought Amy Cohen, who was a member of the Scheuer family. Steve Scheuer just died a few days ago.
Weiss: Her brother was a member of Congress. Her daughter was going to be a student at Hampshire, as our daughter was going to be a student at Hampshire, which is an interesting story also, because our daughter went to an experimental school in New York called City As— Q: Without Walls?
Weiss: It was called City as the School, known as City As. It was a school set up by an Egyptian American, which was an alternative school to public school, or private school, where she had gone. She had been in Fieldston until tenth grade. So, her last two years were at City As.
Weiss: The reason it was called, "City As," is because they used the city as their schoolroom. So you went to the New York budget committee, city council budget, to learn math. You went to the blood mobile to learn chemistry. I can't remember the other places, but they used the city
She applied to Hampshire. I have no idea how she heard about it, I guess at the City As. She got in, and she came home one night, and she said, "Mom and Dad, I'm going to Hampshire College." We were shocked! Mostly because she didn't need us to help her get into college, which we expected. We'd never heard of Hampshire. Fast forward, I became a trustee. Fast forward, I was invited by her graduating class of 1982 to be the class speaker for commencement. The commencement speaker. There was no protest movement at that time, so I didn't have to refuse. [laughs] Which seems to be the new trend this year!
Q: Who are the other trustees? Aside from the Scheuers?
Weiss: Interesting people. A guy named Henry Morgan [phonetic], but he wasn't Henry Morgan the comedian. He set up the bank in the south side of Chicago, which was a kind of communityowned bank. He was from Massachusetts. A guy named [John] Watts, who was part of an investment group in New York, Amy Cohen, who was professionally, I think, a psychiatric social worker.
Q: Now, was that unique in your experiences, to be on a board like that?
Weiss: Absolutely. It was wonderful!
Weiss: I learned a lot, I made good friends, and an incredibly interesting thing happened. One day, the student—we used to meet in what was called the Red Barn, which had been renovated from a real barn, and it was red, to a very modern front, which was glass from ceiling to floor, so we could look out on the gorgeous campus. Beautiful campus.
Q: Yes, it's lovely.
Weiss: We would sit at a big square table, and there were maybe fifteen of us, más o menos, and one day, a group of students came parading down the hill carrying placards, saying "Divest from South Africa." I looked at the students, and I looked at my fellow trustees, and I said, "Colleagues, what's our answer to them?" Fast forward, they appointed me, John Watts, and Henry Morgan, three trustees to spend the weekend in the president's house, Adele Simmons' house. It was a big, gorgeous house on a huge field, with a wonderful view of mountains and fields. Our assignment was to write an investment responsibility plan. We wrote it, three totally different people, one corporate, one—I think Henry probably was an academic as well as an activist, and me. We brought it to the board meeting, and it was called the Committee on Investment Responsibility, which was called CHOIR [Committee at Hampshire on Investment Responsibility]. I don't think any other college in America had such a committee, or such a proposal. Investment was done by investment brokers hired by the universities.
Weiss: We said we had to—now, we had to divest from any corporation doing business in South Africa. Now, mind you, Hampshire had pennies, so to speak, in the bank. We were poor. We were new. We were young. But, we may have had enough thousands of dollars so that they had to be invested. So we had to have an investment policy.
Q: You know, I was going to ask you what the Hampshire portfolio would have looked like.
Weiss: I can't remember.
Weiss: But it would have been social domestic programs, probably.
Weiss: But not—I was going to say [John] Deere tractors, or Caterpillar, but that's in Israel.
Q: Yes. Probably would have never been a consideration of the company, or the banker, or whoever was— Weiss: No, American companies were making money in South Africa.
Weiss: It turned out to be the first university or college to have a divestment program for South Africa. The snowball effect was incredible. It went like a prairie fire through universities, and then through cities and villages. The American Committee on Africa hired Dumisani Kumalo to work on divestment of city investments, and he got New York City to divest, and it all harkens back to Hampshire.
Weiss: It's a fascinating history. Today, how many years later, they still have an Investment Responsibility Committee of board members.
Q: How long did you serve there?
Weiss: Twelve years.