Joseph D. Duffey, 88, Dies; Apostle of Liberalism and Humanities



Joseph D. Duffey, a coal miner’s son and ordained minister whose antiwar campaign for the United States Senate from Connecticut in 1970 galvanized a generation of campus liberals, and who later served as a cultural arbiter in the Carter and Clinton administrations and presided over two major universities, died on Feb. 25 at his home in Washington. He was 88.

His death was confirmed by his son, Michael.

A self-described “hillbilly and a Baptist” from West Virginia, Dr. Duffey had organized Freedom Rides for civil rights in the South and protests against the Vietnam War before seeking the Senate seat from Connecticut. He lost, but his insurgent candidacy jolted the Democratic Party organization and catapulted him into appointive jobs, thanks to two other “hillbilly Baptists” who happened to become presidents of the United States.

Jimmy Carter named him assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs in early 1977, and later that year Dr. Duffey was named chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a post he held until 1982, into the Reagan years.

In 1993, Mr. Clinton recruited him to be director of the United States Information Agency, which promotes American policy abroad. He was its last director as an independent agency; it was absorbed into the State Department in 1999.

Dr. Duffey was chancellor of the University of Massachusetts from 1982 to 1991 and chancellor of American University in Washington from 1991 to 1993.

He entered the political fray after succeeding John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist, as chairman of the liberal advocacy group Americans for Democratic Action. In 1970 he was going up against John M. Bailey’s Connecticut Democratic machine.

Mr. Bailey supported Alphonsus J. Donahue, a wealthy Stamford businessman, to fill the seat that had been held since 1958 by Senator Thomas J. Dodd, a fellow Democrat who had been censured in the Senate for diverting campaign funds for personal use and repudiated by party leaders when he sought re-election to a third term. (His son Christopher Dodd was later elected to the Senate from the state.)

Attracting an array of boldface-name supporters, including the actor Paul Newman, who had a home in Westport, Conn., Dr. Duffey upset Mr. Donahue and a state legislator to win the nomination.

Mounted two years after the failed progressive presidential candidacy of Senator Eugene J. McCarthy in 1968, Dr. Duffey’s campaign energized campus progressives, including a young Bill Clinton, then a student at Yale Law School. They embraced Dr. Duffey as an honest broker who might bridge the gap between disaffected liberal Democrats and blue-collar voters who had switched to the Republican Party and helped put Richard M. Nixon in the White House in 1968.

“At a time when young people were so desperately hungry for honesty and conviction, he met that moment with grace and eloquence,’’ Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut and a former law school classmate of Mr. Clinton’s, said of Dr. Duffey this week.

But Dr. Duffey’s campaign was dealt a setback when Mr. Dodd entered the general election race that fall as an independent. Mr. Dodd wound up splitting the Democratic vote, allowing the Republican nominee, Lowell P. Weicker, to slip into office with less than 42 percent. (Mr. Dodd died less than seven months later.)

“In the fall of 1970, I missed about half of my law school classes trying to help get Joe Duffey elected to the Senate,” Mr. Clinton said in a statement. “There were so many of us who were drawn to his deep commitment to peace, economic fairness, and civil rights. Joe lost the election, but he left us all proud, wiser in the ways of politics, and richer in lifelong friends, including Joe himself.”

Joseph Daniel Duffey was born on July 1, 1932 in Huntington, W. Va., in the western foothills of the Appalachians. His father, Joseph Ivanhoe Duffey, lost a leg in a mining accident and became a barber. His mother, Ruth (Wilson) Duffey, a telegraph operator, died when Joe was 13.

Raised in the Baptist church and later ordained as a Congregational minister, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Marshall University in Huntington in 1954; a bachelor of divinity degree from Andover Theological Seminary in Massachusetts (now the Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School) in 1957; a master’s from Yale Divinity School in 1963; and a doctorate from what is now the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut in 1969.

In 1952, Dr. Duffey married Patricia Fortney, whom he had met at a Baptist youth convention; they divorced in 1973. A year later, he married Anne Wexler, who ran his 1970 campaign, became an aide to President Carter and then a prominent Washington political operative and lobbyist; she died in 2009.

In addition to his son Michael, from his first marriage, he is survived by his partner, Marian Burros, a former food writer for The New York Times; two stepsons, Daniel and David Wexler; two sisters, Ida Ruth Plymale and Patrica Duffey Keesee; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Duffey brought his progressive sensibilities to his job as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Mr. Carter. He defined the job to The Times in 1977 as awarding federal grants to support “disciplines whose function and purpose are self‐discovery and the exploration of the human experience.” And he acknowledged that he had encountered flak for focusing on what he called “neglected areas of research,” like the study of women and minority groups in America and the history of the Middle East.

His background as chief administrative officer for the American Association of University Professors from 1974 to 1976 helped pave the way for his appointments to the chancellorships of the University of Massachusetts and American University.

As a product of the antiwar movement, Dr. Duffey cautioned against romanticizing the era, recalling it as a time of deep national division.

But at a reunion of some of his 1970 campaign volunteers in 1993, after Mr. Clinton had risen to the White House, he reminded them that while it had taken Mr. Clinton’s election to reunite them, they should hold fast to their liberal principles and continue to work for what could bring them together again.

“Looking at you, I’m sure there’s another president here,” Dr. Duffey said. “And I’m sure we’ll all be together again when she is inaugurated.”


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