Harold Levy has the biggest public school system in the nation at his disposal and he still can’t find someone to tell him who first used the phrase the better angels of our nature. “I think it’s Eliot, and then Stevens pivots on it,” the interim schools chancellor muses in the back of his Town Car. “But it was biblical first, right?”
The charcoal suit with pinstripes, the white hankie, the gold-rimmed spectacles, the blue shirt with red tie and white collar all make Levy look like a banker – which he was until last fall, when he left his job as head of global compliance for Citigroup to join the Board of Ed. Levy is zigzagging through traffic to glad-hand at as many public schools as possible: April 13 is the annual Principal for a Day program, and at 5 p.m. he’ll address a thousand of the city’s more civic-minded executives. The speech is the perfect coming-out party – timed just after he asked the board to make him chancellor permanently and after the mayor made some nice public remarks about him for the first time – and Levy would like the “better angels” line to explain why he’s decided to enter this hornet’s nest of a school system. “Rudy Crew warned me that I would never realize how broad that saddle is until I was sitting in it,” he says. “There are such false dichotomies. Vouchers and ‘governance’ – they’ve got nothing to do with teaching and learning. You’re not looking at a bottom line here; you’re looking to perform a social function.”
In the elevator of La Guardia High School, Levy, still puzzling over that quote, encounters an English teacher – an authority at last! – but she says it’s been years since she read Eliot. Upstairs, he shakes hands with Jerry Seinfeld, the performing-arts school’s honorary principal for a day – but doesn’t bother bringing up poetry.
Back in the car, Levy’s phone rings: It’s the English teacher, along with her department head this time – but neither of them knows the quote. “You’re entitled to a lifeline,” Levy says. Finally, an hour later, the teacher calls again: It’s from Abraham Lincoln. At 5 p.m., Levy makes his speech without fear of a Quayle-scale error. “I never thought I’d enjoy a job this much,” he tells the crowd. “Abraham Lincoln was right.”