John Pollack is an unlikely candidate for savior of the Big House. Although he’s an Ann Arbor native and the son of a professor, the Stanford graduate and New York City resident doesn’t have many visible ties to the University. Nevertheless, in the national media flurry surrounding the University Board of Regents’s controversial plan to build skyboxes in Michigan Stadium, Pollack’s name comes up again and again. And though it seems unlikely that Pollack, founder of the group Save the Big House, former Whitehouse speechwriter and winner of the 1995 World Pun Championship, would be able to make a dent in the massive skybox plan, the Athletic Department would do well to consider what they’re up against. Thwarting a building project wouldn’t the most usual feat he’s accomplished.
Ten years ago, when Pollack first moved into his new office in the Old Executive Office Building, he noticed one thing in particular – the doorknob.
The doorknob bore an anchor motif, likely a remnant of the original décor of the building, once known as the State, War and Navy Building. It was Pollack’s first day on the job as one of President Bill Clinton’s speechwriters, and he took this architectural detail as a good sign, given his affinity for all things nautical.
As a sailor and boat builder, Pollack has spent a great deal of time on and near vessels. He built his first boat, the USS Milky Way, out of milk cartons. Moments after launching it in the Huron River, it sank. At Stanford, where he graduated in 1988, he participated in a cardboard boat building competition, creating a crocodile-shaped raft that just barely stayed afloat. Most recently he set out to build the world’s first boat made entirely of corks. It was in the middle of this project that he took the job as President Clinton’s speechwriter.
As part of a team of six writers for the president, though there wasn’t time to think about the cork boat. Pollack was tied up with his new position.
Clinton, who used a black sharpie to make edits, was a ruthless and excellent editor, Pollack said. When the Supreme Court ruled that George W. Bush would become president instead of Al Gore, Clinton was in Europe and needed to make a statement. The speechwriters quickly put together a speech and sent it to Clinton from White House Situation Room. The writers waited for hours to get Clinton’s edits. When the fax finally came through, the only three words left unchanged were “Vice President Gore.”
Pollack’s path to the White House as Clinton’s speechwriter was anything but direct. Pollack was born in Ann Arbor to a University professor and local political organizer. He attended a local nursery school, which was run by the School of Education. He regularly attended Michigan football games and joined his father in protests on the Diag against the Vietnam War.
His father, Henry Pollack, a geophysics professor, came to the University in 1960 for graduate school. Professor Pollack met his future wife in the halls of Allice Lloyd, when he was a Resident Advisor in South Quad, when he took his residents over for a mixer.
From nursery school, Pollack went on to attend Pattengill Elementary, Tappan Junior High and Huron High School. Upon graduating from Huron, he left for Stanford. At Stanford, he wrote for the Stanford Daily, his first of several jobs in journalism.
After college, he made his way East to the Hartford Courant, where he made $25 to $50 per story. Pollack didn’t last long at the Courant – he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and he didn’t want to wait around to be offered such a position. So he left for Spain.
It was a good time to be an American newspaperman in Spain. In 1992, it was the year Spain hosted the World’s Fair and the Summer Olympics. Pollack pitched started off by pitching stories to USA Today, and soon enough he was stringing for the L.A. Times and eventually The Associated Press.
After three years in Madrid, Pollack returned to the United States to campaign for his mother, Lana, who was running for U.S. Senate. His mother ended up losing the nomination by 1 percent.
Mixing in journalism and politics isn’t so strange. But what about journalism and politics and Greenfield Village?
Many of those who grew up in the Detroit suburbs remember Greenfield Village as that place that we had visited in elementary school, middle school and maybe high school. But Pollack actually went back.
Pollack worked in Greenfield Village on a two-year project to renovate the railroad depot and make the railroad tracks Amtrak-friendly. And if it wasn’t for this brief excursion into railway construction, Pollack may have never made it to the White House. It was a former co-worker from Greenfield Village who cued him into speechwriting.
After the railroad renovation was completed, Pollack decided to head to the Beltway. He thought Washington was the right place for someone with his political and journalistic experience.
Saying hello to his friends at Greenfield Village on his way out of town, a former co-worker mentioned a friend in Washington, D.C., who was a speechwriter. When Pollack heard this, he said a light bulb went off in his head.
So he left for D.C., and with no speechwriting experience, he got a job as the sole speechwriter for Congressman David Bonior, who was the minority whip at the time. The year was 1997 – the time of the impeachment process – and being on the Hill was exciting, Pollack said.
Speechwriting for Bonior was different in several ways than writing for Clinton. As minority whip, Bonior spoke quite often, sometimes three times per day – and Pollack was responsible for all of his speeches. As a speechwriter for Clinton, he wrote less often and only covered domestic issues, whereas he covered a wide range of issues, foreign and domestic, under Bonior. Speech topics for Bonior were on subjects as diverse as international trade negotiations, troop policy in Kosovo and Clinton’s impeachment.
Writing for Clinton, there was a lengthy review process for each speech. First, Pollack would be assigned a speech, then there would be a “message meeting” between policy officials, the speechwriters and other relevant people. Pollack’s first draft would be edited by policy experts and political staff. After a couple more drafts, the speech would go to the president, who may or may not make significant changes. Pollack said certain issues, like monument dedications, saw less of the black Sharpie than others. Pollack said Clinton cared deeply about what he said – he had a great love of language and had a “nitty gritty” interest in policy.
Eventually, after seeing Gore lose the election, and after prolonged exposure to the cynical and relentless Washington politicking, Pollack left and started a project that was much more simple – though possibly even more unexpected than launching a campaign against the building project of a school that’s not your alma mater – he returned to his childhood dream of building the first ever boat made completely from corks.
Pollack solicited cork donations from local D.C. bars and restaurants, friends and family and bigger organizations, like Cork Supply U.S.A., all of which led to the final cork count that would build a boat: 165,231. Building the cork boat was expensive and time-consuming. It left Pollack feeling lost and confused at times, not knowing if building a boat of cork was the smartest direction to take his life.
But Pollack, with the help of his architect friend Garth Goldstein, finished the boat and set sail in 2002 on the Douro River in Portugal.
Pollack’s father Henry said his son has always been one to persevere. In the case of the cork boat, this characteristic served him well.
But some University officials have had enough of his pioneering spirit.
Pollack is the head of SavetheBigHouse.com, a group that is protesting the renovations of Michigan Stadium, especially the luxury boxes. His crusade had drawn ire from some University officials and the Athletic Department. Jason Winters, chief financial officer of the Athletic Department, said in an e-mail that Pollack’s “commentary is nonsense.”
Pollack unveiled an alternative renovation plan last year, the Big House Plan, which recommended an additional 10,000 bleacher seats and an elevated second concourse to decrease congestion in the stadium’s upper rows. Pollack calls the luxury box plan a disgrace to the University’s values and tradition of equality.
Pollack doesn’t even live in Ann Arbor, though he often flies in for football games and regents’ meetings.
It was about four and half years ago when Jack Mazzola was preparing for the grand opening of his coffee shop in Greenwich Village, Jack’s Stir Brew, when Pollack peered in and entered, asking if it was too soon to get a cup of joe.
Although Mazzonla hadn’t officially opened the place yet, he invited the man in. At that time, neither of the men knew that years later they would be living with a family on an Amazon reserve, that they would be in Michigan Stadium cheering on a football team from a school neither of them attended, that Jack’s Stir Brew would become so successful, or that they would become best friends.
Not long after the launch of the cork boat, Pollack left Washington for New York City and began working as a communications consultant and freelance speechwriter. He has written speeches for the likes of Edgar Brogman Jr., the CEO of Warner Music, Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisana, and Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.
In his spare time, Pollack still lobbies the University and media outlets to see the other side of the stadium renovations, and his protestations have gained an audience, even if it’s not with the University. Even if school officials behind the renovation plan dispute his opinions, they would do well to remember that they’re dealing with the a man who built an entire boat out of corks and sailed it on a river in Portugal.