Ditching school

Why would Marc Weiss, a tenure-track professor at Columbia University, give it all up to coordinate tour bus parking?

By Eli Lehrer
January 22, 1999 9:07PM (UTC)
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One moment Marc Weiss is speaking fluent academese, handing out reading
lists and giving mini-lectures on the philosophies underpinning downtown
redevelopment. The next, he sounds like a veteran politician, waxing
rhapsodic about community empowerment, federal programs to replace
troubled public housing and the wonkish details of tour bus parking in
Washington, D.C. Weiss, 49, who gave up a tenured post at Columbia University to make urban policy in Washington, walks a
tightrope between two worlds. He still displays the windy diction and
slightly rumpled suits of a tenured academic, but in the last seven
years he has learned the charm-school tools of the political insider. He
hands out flattery gracefully -- "very nice sweater," he tells a
reporter -- and has perfected the grip-firmly-and-make-eye-contact
handshake of those who understand how to oil the political machine.

For a man who once lived in the quiet corridors of urban policy
departments, meditating on the ideals and theories of how cities are
built and destroyed, he has come a long way -- all the way to the most
powerful and arguably the most troubled big city in America. While one
can find professors-turned-policy makers in every marble-covered hall of
the capital city, it's rare to run across a successful academic who so
totally has given himself to the life of the policy maven. Even Henry
Kissinger joined the Nixon administration only after Harvard denied him


Eating a bowl of minestrone soup and sipping a glass of orange
juice, Weiss describes how he came to do the unthinkable. "After four
years [in Washington], I realized that I didn't miss academic life
at all," says Weiss with his characteristic intensity. "I didn't miss
teaching, I didn't miss grading papers, I didn't miss any of it."

Combining a schmaltzy desire for social change, intellectual ambition
and a penchant for organizing, Weiss has come to embody the pro-business, pro-government ideals of the New Democrats. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros called Weiss "the embodiment of urban and housing policy for the Clinton administration," and policies Weiss crafted contributed to steep increases in American home ownership over the past five years. Very much a member of Cisneros' brain trust, Weiss spends part of his time working on a book with Cisneros, now a television executive.

Although there are plenty of committed policy makers in Washington, few
juggle as many different projects at one time. In order to complete his book, Weiss has a fellowship with a centrist think tank, the Center
for National Policy. Simultaneously, Weiss works a second full-time
job as a senior advisor to Washington's own Housing and Community Development department. There, he recently finished writing a 40-page report intended to outline what the city plans to do in order to return people and business to a city that's been losing both since the 1960s. His career trajectory has been one that many academics would dream of: He's gone from writing about a reasonably narrow group of policies to implementing them and from implementing those policies to a broader career as a voracious
generalist who deals with every facet of urban policy.


By Weiss' own confession, this dedication to public policy has had some
personal costs. "I wanted to come to Washington and my wife, a lawyer, really didn't. I went anyway and that's a large part of why she isn't my wife anymore," he says. As an academic, Weiss' claim to fame rests on his one major book: "The Rise of the Community Builders: The American Real Estate Industry and Urban Land Planning" (1987). The book, written in straightforward prose, describes how commercial builders urged the government to create a system of rules and regulations that encouraged Americans to buy private homes.

Ideas like this have made Weiss popular among Democrats like Clinton who
want to establish bona fides with the business community. Time and again, Weiss' book shows that the right kind of government intervention can help private industry achieve goals that benefit society. Although Weiss believes that America couldn't have increased home ownership so quickly without
suburbia, he's no friend of the great sprawl that deadened urban centers and destroyed open space. "Government policies played a big role in building suburbia," he says. "But it didn't happen for free."

Even though it was his academic career that paved the way to his current
political clout, he traces the roots of his work to a much earlier age.
"From the time I first took part in civil rights demonstrations in
Chicago when I was 13, I knew I wanted to change the world," he
says. "It wasn't so much that I wanted to become an academic, but it was
just that the position gave me a good deal of freedom and some time to
really think about policy and maybe the opportunity to make a
difference." This desire to make a difference led to a year-long stint
as a bus driver when indecision struck Weiss after a year of graduate


"The San Francisco schools had just been integrated and I went in and
got a job as a bus driver to forward integration. I was a real driver --
a member of the union and everything -- driving a 40-foot-long school
bus down those hills," he says proudly. After a two-year tour of duty
writing movie and restaurant reviews for the Pentagram -- a publication
for Defense Department employees in the D.C area -- he left
the Army and returned to graduate school at UC-Berkeley at age 27. His Ph.D.
took another seven years. But no sooner had his academic career begun
with the publication of his dissertation than politics again raised its
seductive head. A friend asked him to write housing policy for Michael
Dukakis. One of the few good days in Dukakis' otherwise disastrous 1988
campaign for the presidency came when he went out to a 1950s tract-home
development on Long Island to announce plans to make home ownership
easier, plans that Weiss had played a key role in developing.

"That was when I realized [this] was the sort of thing I had always wanted to be doing," says Weiss. "I knew how to play the academic game but I missed the idea of actually implementing the policies I was writing about." Weiss' desire to make policy rather than study it only grew as Dukakis' defeat ensured his fellow Democrats another four years out of power. As Clinton's campaign
started to heat up in 1991, Weiss approached people he had met during
the last campaign and soon he was touring the country selling groups on
candidate Clinton's plans to make more Americans into homeowners.
Weiss served as Clinton's transition team advisor on housing and urban
policy and then landed a job as a senior analyst at HUD. For Weiss, this
job in the public sector represented a huge change. "I had taught public
policy for years and, after a little while in Washington, I realized
that you can't teach public policy at all," he says. "I had no idea at
all how things actually worked here, no idea how to get things done. I
was suppose to be a teacher of this but actually I knew next to nothing
about it."


It was then that Weiss began to feel the tension between the worlds of
academia and government. "It made me realize how messy politics can be,"
he says. "But it also made me realize how much I liked doing it." Despite his relative inexperience, Weiss threw himself into the political maelstrom. He devised new and restructured loan and purchasing policies that made it a bit easier for low- and moderate-income people to buy housing. The Hope 6 grant program, which he helped devise, began to tear down and replace some of the country's worst public housing units. After years of decline under Reagan and Bush, American homeownership rates began to rise thanks in part to policies that Weiss implemented.

Today, despite the residue of the ivory tower lingering on his shirttails and his vocabulary, Weiss' concerns have become increasingly unacademic -- focusing more and more on the local problems of his adopted hometown. Indeed, it's sometimes difficult to get him to stop talking about
new Metrorail stations, traffic patterns and high-tech development zones -- so fixated is he on the gritty details of his work. If the seduction of academia is in the power of the imagination to give birth to ideals far beyond implementation, the lure of public service is the exact opposite. As Weiss moves away from the rarefied world of ideas and becomes enmeshed in the tedious logistics that often mean the difference between successful cities and failing ones, he embodies a simple and difficult lesson: that it is often only through the careful attention to tedious facts and figures that American dreams come true.

Eli Lehrer

Eli Lehrer is a staff reporter for the Washington Times' Insight Magazine and a contributing writer for the American Enterprise.

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