More on the Eggheads in the Oval Office

Readers continue to contest my cavalier exaggeration that few modern Presidents, if any, could be called intellectuals.

As we have seen, Herbert Hoover has his defenders, as a Greek and Latin scholar, and Harry Truman his, as a voracious reader who read his way through two complete small-town libraries and never gave up the habit.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is the difficulty of defining intellectual . It has been suggested that an intellectual is one who can hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.


Bill Mitchell of Placentia suggests one of equal merit: “An intellectual is someone who, when the James brothers are mentioned, thinks of William and Henry, not Jesse and Frank.”

Several readers have nominated Theodore Roosevelt. Joseph G. Leggett of Thousand Oaks recalls that Time magazine, in its bicentennial issue, noted that James Garfield, during boring debates in Congress, wrote simultaneously with his right and left hands in Greek and Latin.

That is an astonishing skill, though of what use it would be to a sitting President I don’t know. Besides, Garfield and Roosevelt were not moderns. The modern era, in my view, began at the end of World War I.

That brings us up to Warren G. Harding. Alas, no one has come to his defense. Duke Russell sends an essay by George W. Hunt, editor of the Jesuit journal America, in which he recalls the poet e. e. Cummings’ estimate of Harding: “He’s the only person who could write a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors.”

Like Garfield’s writing simultaneously in Greek and Latin, that is no mean feat.

Richard Nixon’s defenders are numerous and vociferous. Helene Down of Rolling Hills writes to chide me for quoting Nixon’s alleged remark upon first seeing the Great Wall of China: “This is a great wall.”

Down encloses a column by Adrian Lee in the Philadelphia Daily News castigating the press for what he saw as the media’s malicious bias against Nixon. He uses the quotation “This is a great wall” as an example, noting that the press failed to report the full quote: “When . . . one sees the wall going to the peak of this mountain, and realizes that it runs for . . . thousands of miles over the mountains and through the valleys of this country (and) that it was built over 2,000 years ago, I think that you would . . . conclude that this is a great wall and that it had to be built by a great people.”

“President Nixon throughout his career displayed many examples of real wit,” Down observes, “and it doesn’t do him or you justice to quote what you did as a remark in this context. . . .”

I regret that I quoted him out of context; but if, indeed, he made the more extensive remark (with ellipses), I suggest that “This is a great wall” would have been better: honest, succinct, and plain, while the full quote is pompous and contrived, and sounds rehearsed.

He might have said: “Why do great nations exhaust their energies and their wealth on walls?”

History might give Dwight Eisenhower good grades, but for torturing syntax he had no equal. “Eisenhower,” said a writer whose name I have unfortunately lost, “could take a relatively simple query and accompany it on a forced march down uncharted roadways of prose, over the directionless terrain of circumspection, with pauses at parenthetical way stations and at refueling stops near little punctuation shops, where dashes and semicolons had to be handcrafted to shore up the load gathered by the subject en route to some semantically obscure conclusion.”

But he could, in unguarded moments, be admirably blunt. Antonio Negrete of South Pasadena recalls that in his book “Brainpower,” Karl Albrecht recalls that Ike once exclaimed at a Cabinet meeting, “Oh, goddammit! We forgot the silent prayer!”

In his written speeches, however, Eisenhower left us a legacy of eloquent wisdom. For example: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

He also said, on his retirement at age 70, “No one should ever sit in this office over 70 years old, and that I know.”

Gene Dow of Woodland Hills recalls an apt remark of Somerset Maugham’s: “It requires little mental ability to rule a nation.”

Thank God for that.