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The Prime Minister Matriculates : Ex-Swedish Politician Attends Pomona College

March 18, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Former Swedish Prime Minister Thorbjorn Falldin is a self-educated farmer who normally spends the darkest months of the year in a snow-blown forest cutting down trees and hauling timber to the nearest logging road.

But this winter he was in balmy Southern California--going to college for the first time ever.

Falldin was attending political science and economics classes, taking tennis lessons and leading Pomona College faculty in seminars on how to run a country. Not surprisingly, he also clearly enjoyed his first experience of the region's "truly remarkable climate," a welcome change from the sub-freezing temperatures on the family farm about 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle near Ramvik on the eastern coast of Sweden.

A big, thoughtful, slow-talking, polite, pipe-smoking man with large, calloused hands shaped by outdoor work, Falldin inspired comparisons with America's frontier democrats of the last century.

"He doesn't have the sort of slickness one expects of north European politicians," said Hans Palmer, a Pomona economics professor. "It's a little trite to say he's a man of the people, but in a sense I think he is . . . He is probably more like an 1840s Indiana farmer cum politician than a 20th-Century American politician. Yet he's quite sophisticated despite his apparent rough-hewn qualities . . . There's a genuine warmth and human quality in the guy, which I think he would seek to translate into policy."

Palmer speaks with some authority. The Pomona campus has hosted a number of former foreign officials, including former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former British Prime Minister Edward Heath. However, those visits were for a few days at most.

Previous experience with politics and Falldin's easy-going, approachable manner notwithstanding, some found his presence intimidating, degree or no degree.

"I found it daunting," said Elizabeth Crighton, an associate professor of government who taught a comparative foreign policy class attended by Falldin (pronounced Fell-dean). Crighton, who has made several research trips to strife-ridden Northern Ireland, explained, "He was very polite and didn't object to what I said but it was quite terrifying. When he didn't come to class on occasion, you couldn't very well say, 'Sorry, you have to come to class.' Former prime ministers get to skip classes."

In an interview, Falldin himself noted with understatement that his practical experience often gave him a different view from that of a teacher. "I know that reality is often more complicated than that which a professor describes," he said.

Palmer, for one, found Falldin's pragmatism refreshing.

"Whenever you can bring the ivory tower and the real world together, it's helpful," he said. "I think that our students, particularly at a college like this, are often way up in the clouds of abstraction and we have to pull them down. . . . It's also good for students and faculty to see a public figure who knows his own mind, is very direct and is very honest in his responses. In a period when there is some skepticism and cynicism about the credibility of public officials, I think it's valuable for them to see that."

Leader of Coalition

Hardly a household word in this country, Falldin is probably best known as the conservative coalition leader who in 1976 unseated Olaf Palme, the outspoken and fiery Socialist prime minister assassinated on a Stockholm street last year. During three terms totaling five years as prime minister, Falldin's closest brush with international prominence came in late 1981 when a Soviet submarine ran aground in Swedish waters, generating a fleeting crisis and a few days of worldwide headlines.

So while his presence here created no stir beyond the campus, in Sweden it was another matter. The 60-year-old Falldin's encounter with higher education got big play in that country of 8 million, said Steven Koblik, a Pomona College faculty member who has known Falldin since 1973, helped arrange his visit and served as Falldin's translator until he left the country late last week.

"I don't think there's been any Swedish newspaper that has not written about it in big form, one or two full pages," Koblik said, noting that the Swedish press considers Pomona "a very strange place because Sweden doesn't have small, private liberal arts colleges."

Falldin's eight-week stint as elder statesman and student may have gotten so much attention at home because "people in Sweden are aware that Thorbjorn is not formally educated," Koblik said. " . . . I think for them his willingness to come out and participate in a university was a very exciting and attractive thing."

Retired From Politics

Now avowedly retired from politics, Falldin said with some humor that he now seems to be bigger news than when he was an active politician. After he got a speeding ticket last fall, the incident was played up by the Stockholm dailies, he explained.

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