Source: The Boston Globe | Neil Swidey | July 22, 2015

 

“One of the things that I love about a place like MIT is engineering has really been a pathway to upward mobility,” says Ernest Moniz, shown at MIT. (Credit: Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe.)

“One of the things that I love about a place like MIT is engineering has really been a pathway to upward mobility,” says Ernest Moniz, shown at MIT. (Credit: Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe.)

How an MIT professor from Fall River got to the center of everything from climate change to nuclear Iran.

HE DOESN’T look like much of a force.

Sitting on the bench of a soccer field in Needham, his long silver hair restrained by a vintage terry cloth headband, he could be mistaken for an extra from The Royal Tenenbaums. He is just 5 feet 7, and with his black athletic socks pulled up high and his baggy blue shorts hanging down low, that leaves only a couple of inches of exposed kneecap between them. Also, he has enough of a paunch to suggest that food has played more than a sustenance role during his 70 years on this planet.

But when Ernest Moniz takes the field, it quickly becomes clear that opponents should write him off at their own peril. His athletic ability is unremarkable, even for this “over-the-hill” soccer league, where the players’ hair comes in one of three varieties: gray, white, and long-departed. Moniz is a threat because of his formidable mix of gusto, guts, and, most of all, smarts.

When an opponent dribbles into scoring position, Moniz charges and slides his whole body into the ball, breaking it free and sending the dribbler tumbling. It’s a perfect defensive move — bold but entirely clean. As a teammate yells, “Good hustle, Ernie!” Moniz springs up and then lends a hand to help his opponent to his feet.

A little while later, when Moniz is back on the bench, his armed government driver close by, I amble over to chat. “You missed my shot on goal,” he tells me by way of a greeting. (He had refused to inform me when and where he would be playing, yet now seems pleased that I have managed to track him down.)

“Did you score?” I ask.

“Nah. I play mostly defense.”

This prompts a heavyset teammate to crack: “That’s how low the expectations are. Even he doesn’t expect to score!”

For much of this year, Moniz’s normally grueling pace as President Obama’s energy secretary has been even more punishing because of his role as the administration’s nuclear science point man for the high-stakes negotiations with Iran. Hearing this ribbing from the bench, I ask Moniz if it’s a relief from all his pressures to just run around with old friends and simply be “Ernie.”

“Not really,” he replies. “They ask me about the Iran negotiations all the time.” Coincidentally, his team includes a couple of players originally from Iran.

As competitive as Moniz is on the field, that’s nothing compared with his drive in Washington, where he has every intention of scoring, and scoring often.

From the moment two years ago when Barack Obama appointed him to lead the Department of Energy, Moniz has been on the move. His immediate predecessor, Nobel laureate Steven Chu, had been viewed as a brilliant scientist but an ineffectual political leader who got swallowed up by Republican criticism of department initiatives, notably the loan guarantees to failed solar energy company Solyndra. Moniz, a nuclear physicist, developed impressive scientific and policy credentials across several decades as an MIT professor and administrator, but he also honed his political chops during a previous tour in Washington, holding two posts in the Clinton administration. Before the start of this tour, he got his old band of aides back to together and gave them one message: “We’re not going to play defense. We’re going to play offense.”

He hasn’t given up the ball since. He has taken a leading role in the president’s climate change action plan, pushing for investment to bring down the costs of renewables while working closely with a trio of fellow Obama appointees from Massachusetts — Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy, White House climate adviser Brian Deese, and Secretary of State John Kerry — to bend down the curve on US carbon emissions. At the same time, Moniz has used his mastery of the appropriations process and federal bureaucracy, as well as his longstanding energy industry connections and strong support for shale gas and nuclear power, to quiet even the most recalcitrant Republican critics in Congress.

While Kerry was the public face of the Iran negotiations, Moniz’s nuclear bona fides and bipartisan support made him the most important American at the table, the expert both Republicans and Democrats will look to for assurances that the deal is technically sound.

“He’s one of the best prepared energy secretaries we’ve ever had,” says Bill Richardson, a former US energy secretary and globe-trotting negotiator. “And this Iran breakthrough has established him as the star of this Cabinet.” Richardson, a natural-born politician for whom Moniz served as undersecretary of energy during the Clinton administration, says flatly, “If the Iran deal is approved by the Congress, it will be because of Ernie’s credibility.”

Of course, the more Moniz’s profile has grown, the narrower his margin of error has become. He could find himself being held accountable for forces over which he may have little control. If that worries him, he’s not letting on. It may seem unlikely for a star to be born at age 70. But this man who oozes both confidence and competence has been working his whole life to put himself into exactly this position.

EVERY PIECE WRITTEN about Moniz seems to luxuriate in its attention to his hair. So let’s get this out of the way: It’s a very nice head of shoulder-length hair — full and wavy; marbled with strands of silver, white, and charcoal; curling at the bottom so it cups behind the ears. That hair exploded on social media in January, during the president’s State of the Union address. A tight camera shot of Moniz listening with raised eyebrows from the audience unleashed a flood of tweets, everything fromPhotoshopped images of Moniz on the Quaker Oats label to cracks like “Do you think Obama feels more pressure during this speech because an actual founding father is in the audience?”

But all the jokes mask some smart political calculus. “At first, I assumed he just liked his hair that way,” says Cheryl LaFleur, a member and former chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. “Now I think he uses his goofy hairstyle as part of his approach.” She describes Moniz winning over a crowd with the simple quip “I may look like one of the founding fathers, but I’m a man of tomorrow.”

Bill Richardson also sees shrewdness in how his former deputy leverages his retro mane. “Ernie’s become a cult figure because of his hairdo,” he says, “and that has helped make him a star.”

Moniz has stuck with the hairstyle for nearly half a century. It dates to when the strait-laced product of Fall River public schools and Boston College headed to Stanford for grad school, adopting the groovy ways of California. After earning his PhD in theoretical physics in 1971, he went to Paris for a postdoctoral fellowship. That’s where he met Naomi Hoki, a Brazilian scholar of Portuguese literature whose parents had emigrated from Japan to Brazil. They were two students in French class who had Portuguese in common. Even if Moniz couldn’t speak the language, he could understand it, since his grandparents had come to Fall River from the Azores, Portugal’s nine-island archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean.

Sitting with Moniz and his wife a few weeks ago in the kitchen of their Brookline home, I ask what drew her to him back in Paris. A big smile plays over her face. “Oh, he was handsome!”

“Notice the past tense,” Moniz cracks, digging into a slice of sausage pizza.

“Did he have the long hair at the time?” I ask.

“It was longer! It was down to here,” she says, pressing her finger onto his shoulder blade.

“That’s not true!” Moniz interjects, tapping his leg impatiently under the table. “It was long, but not that long.”

“It was just like Meat Loaf,” Naomi says.

“So that’s what attracted you to him,” I say, “that he was handsome?”

“Yes.”

“Naomi!” Moniz snaps as the breeze from the air-conditioning unit behind him, on the fan-only setting, causes his hair to sway slightly. “This is on the record!”

I can’t help but laugh at this exchange. “You want that to be off the record,” I ask, “that you were handsome?”

He silently finishes chewing his mouthful of pizza. Then he smiles and slowly says, “Yes.”

The Monizes exhibit the endearing repartee of a long-married couple. When she attempts to put salad on his plate and says, “You should have some,” he rolls his eyes and replies, “Yeah, yeah, later.” She turns to me and complains, “See? He avoids his vegetables.”

In many other matters both big and small, though, he clearly puts a high value on the opinion of his wife, a Harvard-trained retired professor of Portuguese at Georgetown. It’s probably no coincidence that the hairstyle he was sporting when his wife fell in love with him is the one he still sports — and that she’s the one he relies on to cut his locks.

Like Moniz, I grew up in the Fall River area, and I knew many people who shared his Portuguese surname. However, they all pronounced the name “MOAN-is,” while he uses the more exotically inflected “Moan-EEZE.” Later, when I ask him if anyone in his family pronounced it the Fall River way, he freezes for a moment and then says: “They all used to. But my wife is Brazilian, and she told me, ‘You’d better pronounce that right.’ ”

In the wall across from his kitchen table, Moniz had a chalkboard installed, which his two young grandchildren use for doodling and arithmetic. He had rescued the slate from the office of theoretical physics at MIT during a remodel years earlier. (He also had a chalkboard installed in his Washington office, but agreed to remove it after aides complained it was sending the message that he was still in professor mode.)

On a stroll around the MIT campus, Moniz mentions that it had long been the ambition of his father, who never had much of an education and worked in the Firestone tire factory in Fall River, that his son — and only child — attend this particular college. “My father always dreamed ‘MIT — engineering’, ” Moniz says. “I’m not sure he fully understood it, but that was the dream. Unfortunately, he did not live to see that happen.”

His father died in May of 1973. Moniz joined the MIT faculty in the fall of that year, a few months after he and Naomi had married in Paris. “One of the things that I love about a place like MIT is engineering has really been a pathway to upward mobility,” he says. “We always thought, and I still do, that MIT was more of the blue-collar place, compared to, let’s say, some other places up the river.”

Moniz’s conventional academic career changed in 1983, when MIT’s dean of science, John Deutch, tapped him to run the Bates Linear Accelerator Center, a nuclear science lab funded by the US Department of Energy. Moniz’s first reaction to the offer was surprise. “I’m a theoretical physicist,” he reminded the dean. “I’m not an experimental physicist.”

But Deutch wanted a go-getter in the job to keep MIT competitive nationally in the nuclear research space, and Moniz did not disappoint. He held the post for just over eight years or — in the measurement preferred by the precise Moniz — “100 months.” (During his 2013 Senate confirmation hearings, Moniz introduced Naomi as his wife “of 39.83 years,” prompting Senator Al Franken to challenge his math and Moniz to have to admit to a “rounding error.”)

The Bates lab job put Moniz on a management and policy trajectory, and he followed it up with stints as chairman of the physics department at MIT, an associate director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, and undersecretary at the Energy Department.

When he returned to MIT after Bill Clinton left office, he teamed up again with Deutch, who had been Clinton’s CIA director. They cofounded MIT’s “Future of” study series on energy technology, from nuclear to coal to natural gas to renewables. Moniz was hooked on searching for answers to the world’s toughest energy problems. Rather than return to the classroom, he decided to deepen the search by founding the MIT Energy Initiative. The idea was to use support from the energy industry and others to fund innovative, solutions-oriented research from bright minds across various disciplines. The initiative was a major success, pulling in hundreds of millions in funding and attracting thinkers from outside the energy space. Among those were wunderkind andMacArthur “genius” Erik Demaine, who had joined the MIT faculty at age 20 and made his name through computational origami, using computers and mathematical laws to model the ways in which paper and other materials can be folded. But the fact that the Energy Initiative worked so closely with some of the world’s biggest fossil fuel companies, including BP, Shell, Chevron, and Saudi Aramco, would later make Moniz and his commitment to tackling climate change suspect in the eyes of some environmentalists.

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