A Man for This Season: Larry Sabato's Passion is Politics

First of two parts.

October 24, 2008 — On Election Night in November 1960, 8-year-old Larry Sabato sat riveted to his family's black-and-white television set in their Norfolk, Va., home. In the days before the election, the boy had gone door to door with his father, handing out leaflets on behalf of John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate for president.

"I was in a Catholic family," Sabato said. His family believed in the Roman Catholic Church's seven official sacraments: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, matrimony, penance, holy orders and extreme unction. "The eighth sacrament was to vote for John Kennedy," he said.

His parents allowed him to stay up late to watch election returns in the tight race between Kennedy and Richard Nixon. "On Election Night, I was so excited I couldn't sleep, but fell asleep in front of the TV," he said. "After that, I was absolutely hooked on politics."

That passion for politics has shaped Sabato's life. Nearly 50 years later, Sabato is the Robert Kent Gooch Professor and a University Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia, director of the University's Center for Politics and an internationally known analyst of American politics. He lives, breathes, eats and sleeps politics.

"Nobody works harder to stay on top of his subject matter," said Bob Gibson, a political reporter for The Charlottesville Daily Progress for more than 30 years before becoming director of U.Va.'s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership in March. "Larry doesn't just put in an eight-hour day and then call it quits."

"He's a force of nature," agreed Paul Freedman, associate professor of politics at U.Va., who, like Sabato, specializes in American politics and government.

Gibson has known Sabato since 1970, when both were undergraduates at the University. "I remember him as a workaholic fellow student who led Student Council and accomplished great things even then," Gibson recalled.
 
Sabato's upbeat attitude and penchant for action as much as his stellar academic credentials prompted emeritus professor Ruhi Ramazani, then the chairman of the University's Department of Government and Foreign Affairs (since renamed the Department of Politics), to offer Sabato a teaching job at U.Va. in 1978.

"Larry's leadership as a student was remarkable," Ramazani said. "He was prominent in the days when students were very apathetic."

Sabato became involved in student government in high school. He had watched massive resistance — the effort by the Virginia state government to resist federally ordered desegregation of the public schools — play out in Norfolk in the 1950s and '60s.

"My family was strongly opposed to massive resistance," Sabato said. "It was still going on in Virginia when I was in high school. That was one of the most shameful episodes in American history — not just in Virginia history, but in American history — to close the public schools so as not to admit a handful of African-American students to high school."

The 1960s were also a time when the United States was engaged in an unpopular war overseas. "When I was president of the Student Council, I invited Henry Howell to speak to our school," Sabato said. "He was critical of the war in Vietnam. He was pro-civil rights."

Sabato was so impressed with Henry E. Howell Jr., then a Democratic state senator, that he worked for several of his campaigns. Howell's 1971 campaign for lieutenant governor came after the passage of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote.

"No voters thought he would win the election," Sabato said. "But we got out the vote. Young people made the difference."

After graduating from Norfolk Catholic High School in 1970, Sabato attended U.Va., graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor's degree in government in 1974. He studied for a year at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs before winning a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University's Queen's College. After earning a doctorate in politics there, he taught in Oxford's Politics, Philosophy and Economics program and in early 1978 was elected a lecturer in politics at New College, Oxford.

At that point, he planned to return to the States and attend law school.

"I was accepted at Harvard and Yale, and was headed to Yale, when in April I got a telegram from Ruhi Ramazani, offering me a tenure-track job teaching American government at the princely salary of $14,000 a year," Sabato said. "I didn't even know I was being considered for the job."

Sabato's father, N.J. Sabato, a child of the Great Depression, urged his son to go to law school instead, believing that law offered a better living than academe. "But I was tired of going to school," Sabato said.

He also loved U.Va. and was encouraged to take the job by several faculty members, including Edgar F. Shannon Jr., former U.Va. president and Sabato's mentor, who had encouraged him to apply for the Rhodes scholarship; Weldon Cooper, professor of government and director of the Center for Public Service that now bears his name; and professors of politics Clifton McClesky and Ramazani.

Sabato deferred admission to law school at Harvard and Yale for a couple of years, but realized he liked what he was doing and loved Charlottesville. He let his law school acceptances expire and threw himself into teaching.

Three decades later, neither Sabato's ardor for teaching nor his passion for politics has cooled.

This year on Election Night, Nov. 4, Sabato once again expects to be riveted by national election returns. Nearly five decades after watching his first presidential election, he will be following dozens of political races nationwide. And instead of a young boy sitting on the outside looking in, he'll be recognized as one of the country's top political analysts, on the inside looking out.

Tomorrow: Whether you consider him a serious scholar or "Dr. Dial-a-Quote," it's hard to ignore Larry Sabato's impact on politics and the University.

— By Charlotte Crystal