Remembering that time Jimmy Buffett took Margaritaville to Harvard

A former Times reporter quickly learned the singer was a student of foreign affairs.
Jimmy Buffett performed at the then-Ford Amphitheater in Tampa in February 2005.
Jimmy Buffett performed at the then-Ford Amphitheater in Tampa in February 2005. [ Times (2005) ]
Published Sept. 3|Updated Sept. 3

The eulogies about Jimmy Buffett have focused on his music, his business acumen and his love for life. But when I saw him in a college classroom in 2005, I was impressed with his understanding of foreign policy.

I met Buffett at Harvard University in 2005, where he came to talk about Margaritaville and politics. I was there as the Washington bureau chief for the then-St. Petersburg Times to write a profile of Bob Graham, the longtime Florida politician who had retired from the U.S. Senate and was taking part in a fellowship at the university’s Institute of Politics. The institute was something of a halfway house for retired politicians that gave them a place where they could teach and do the occasional panel discussion while they figured out what to do with the rest of their lives.

As I waited in the lobby, I saw Martin Frost, a retired House member, who said, “You picked a great day to be here. Jimmy Buffett’s here!” It turned out that Graham had invited Buffett to be a surprise guest speaker for his graduate seminar. After saying hello to Graham and meeting the singer, I took a seat in the classroom.

I had modest expectations for Buffett. I knew him from songs such as “Margaritaville” and “A Pirate Looks at 40,″ and I had seen him play at Tropicana Field in 1991. (It was then called the Florida Suncoast Dome.) I didn’t expect he’d have great expertise in national or international politics.

But in Graham’s class, Buffett quickly impressed me with his depth on foreign affairs. He led the students through an exercise in which he challenged them to show their understanding of the world. He chose countries named on the front page of the New York Times and asked them to pick rock bands with personalities that matched those countries. He said there were three basic types:

  • Bands governed by democracy with four equal members who each want to kill each other;
  • Benevolent dictatorships (He put himself and his Coral Reefer Band in that category.);
  • The egocentric band, which has a leader “who doesn’t give a damn about anybody else.”

It was a fun exercise that showed his understanding of the countries and the bands. (I don’t recall many specifics, but I remember that Oasis was one of the dysfunctional bands.)

One of the students asked Buffett to play a song. Unfortunately he had not brought his guitar, and the only one that anyone could find was a toy model that broke when Buffett tried to tune it.

The seminar ended, and Buffett said his goodbyes and went outside to a waiting car. His moment as a teacher had concluded. He was headed to Boston radio stations to promote his new album, which he had recorded at Fenway Park. He was back to being a rock star.

Bill Adair, the Knight Professor of Journalism and Public Policy at Duke University, was a reporter and editor for the Times from 1989 to 2013.