Words to live by

Sen. Whitehouse cites his sources


I first suspected that Senator Sheldon Whitehouse did a lot of reading after I saw excerpts from a speech he gave at the height of the Affordable Care Act debate:

“History cautions us of the excesses to which these malignant, vindictive passions can ultimately lead,” he wrote of the Tea Party protests in Washington. “Tumbrils have rolled through taunting crowds. Broken glass has sparkled in darkened streets. Strange fruit has hung from southern trees.”

It is a rare politician who can shoehorn echoes of Charles Dickens, a Canadian rock band and Billie Holliday into the same paragraph.

Tumbrils are the crude carts that were used to transport French aristocrats to the Guillotine in the opening of “A Tale of Two Cities”; broken glass sparkled on city streets is an image in “Left and Leaving” by Weakerthan; and “Strange Fruit” is the seminal anti-lynching song that Billie Holliday recorded in 1939.

“I know about the Dickens and I know about Billie Holiday, but I never heard the song by Weakerthan,” Whitehouse said Monday. “If I was aware of it, I would have asked for permission to use it. I was aware of fair use guidelines and there were a few favorites, like Bob Dylan, I couldn’t put in because they were very adamant about controlling their material.”

Whether other writers enter Whitehouse’s senate prose on purpose or by osmosis is beside the point. The fact is, he has done a lot of reading and his just published book, “On Virtues,” proves it. The classical and historical references range from ancient Greece to case law presented before the Supreme Court. Whitehouse said Monday that he has been working on the book, or, more importantly, on his idea for a book for about 20 years.

“I started writing down things I heard that impressed me or inspired me or contained some insight I thought were important and I wrote them down,” he explained. “After that, the book was relatively easy to do. Most of the writing was already done.”

“On Virtues” arrived at the Beacon office Friday morning and I read it over the weekend. It’s a neat little book that has some familiar and some unfamiliar words in it, but Whitehouse said they all were noted and written down because of the beauty of the words or the personal inspiration they would afford a variety of occasions. But the real surprise, I suspect, is the way Whitehouse evokes his personal history in the introduction. A few, but not enough, people realize that Whitehouse is the son of a foreign service professional whose postings around the world provided adventure and not a little risk for himself and his young family. Whitehouse’s explains how he came to believe that his unusual childhood was a necessary and important thing and that his parents’ foreign service had a deeper meaning than the inconvenience of separation and anxiety and danger the young Whitehouse must have endured from time to time.

“Something was worth my mom’s having to worry about not having a decent hospital nearby when I broke my arm, or worry about how we’d get rabies vaccine when my brother was bitten by a street dog (a friend’s mother died of rabies, so this was no idle worry) … Something was worth the family separations that safety and schooling demanded … In my family, we never talked about what that something was. It was like a dark star – you only knew it was there by its effect on other things.”

Apparently, the boy who grew up in a house where keeping secrets was a way of life has always been reluctant to speak about his adventures publicly, for it is surprising to find that his father was a much decorated dive bomber pilot in World War II and was one of those behind the scenes cold warriors that were so essential when the Soviet Union really was a big threat to our democracy and survival, even if those conflicts were generally confined to subtle diplomatic ploys that helped to maintain the balance of influence in the developing world of the 1960s: In other words, the “something” that eluded the diplomat’s boy.

“Perhaps that something was too big to talk about. Perhaps that’s why I find it easier to look for that something in other people’s words than to describe it in my own.”

It may be easier but not necessarily better. His description of how his family and other western diplomats had run afoul of the powers that were in one African country in the 1960s:

“I remember the unaccustomed sight of my father in the kitchen in our house in Conakry, Guinea. It was afternoon, when the household staff [all spies of the Guinean government] were away. He had bags of groceries from the embassy commissary spread out around the kitchen counters, and was hiding walkie-talkies inside bread loaves to deliver to the embassy families. We had all been put under house arrest by the Guinean government. My father had negotiated permission to deliver groceries to the imprisoned families and this was how he was going to make sure that everyone could communicate, and how he would know that everyone was all right – that nothing awful was happening. Off he went, with our embassy Wagoneer stuffed with grocery bags and secrets, leaving a son amazed at his father’s capacity for such intrigue, proud to be in on the secret. I was probably 10.”

You do wish that there was more of this in the book, but the introduction is frustratingly short. Which would grate on you if the sections quoted in the book didn’t match its aspirations, but they do.

Here’s JFK on government:

“My experience in government is that when things are non-controversial, beautifully coordinated and the rest, it must be that there is not much going on.”

Harry S. Truman on his reputation:

“I never gave anybody hell. I just told them the truth and they thought it was hell.”

Whitehouse is a lawyer, so you can excuse the inordinate number of citations from lawyers and judges that are included, but some of them are worth hearing, including one from Chief Justice Richard F. Neely of the West Virginia Supreme Court, whom Whitehouse clerked for:

“Come on, Sheldon, strap on our ass-kissing lips – we’re going up to the legislature.”

How about this tip on writing well from William Safire, speechwriter, columnist and sly humorist:

“Avoid all clichés like the plague.”

(Whitehouse’s attached comment to this, “Get it?” sort of took the fun out of it, but it gets better.)

Of course, not all of the quotations are ironic or sardonic, but there is enough of that to make it worth looking for. I was especially charmed by the selection of famous last words, as when Voltaire was on his deathbed and was urged to renounce Satan.

“Now is not the time to make enemies.”

Or Oscar Wilde on his last bunk-up:

“This wallpaper is killing me; one of us has to go.”

Thankfully, Whitehouse didn’t feel compelled to tell us the wallpaper stayed, but I was pleased with most of his comments explaining why he was moved to save the words. He includes that famous last letter from Sullivan Ballou, the soldier from Smithfield who wrote to his wife just before he died in the Civil War:

“But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you: in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights – amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours – always, always; and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.”

That letter that so moved the millions of people who heard it read in Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” moved Burns even more. Whitehouse informs us that the director carried a copy of it folded in his wallet for 25 years. That letter makes you wish that there really were ghosts.

Also, from the Civil War, there is the letter that Abraham Lincoln sent to a Lydia Bixby of Boston on the occasion of losing five sons in the war. Whitehouse follows that with some information I’m not about to divulge here. He’s not the only one around here who can keep a secret.


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