Friday, December 14, 2007


The Education of Presidents

Last week some readers alerted me to an op-ed piece in the New York Times by Harry Mount, with the title A Vote for Latin. Mount hopes that a new generation of students, including future Presidents, will choose to study Latin.

Forget Latin. I'd be satisfied if the next President could speak English correctly. The current occupant of the White House speaks English as if it were not even his native tongue:And then there's his pronunciation of "nuclear."

Both Presidents Bush were educated at Phillips Academy and Yale University. I was surprised to learn from Mount's article that Bush XLIII actually studied Latin at prep school. It just goes to show that no amount of expensive education will make a dent if raw material is lacking.

Tracy Lee Simmons, "Greek Ruins," National Review (Sept. 14, 1998), told an amusing anecdote about the limits of Bush XLI's knowledge of the classics:
A speechwriter for Vice President George Bush once prepared a stump speech peppered with a bit of Thucydides, a Greek historian of the fifth century B.C. But after the Vice President tripped over the name one time too many, another staffer decided to avoid further embarrassment by drawing a line through the word and writing in "Plato." One dead Greek was as good as another, and who would know the difference?
Perhaps there are others, but to my knowledge the only U.S. politician of recent times who studied Latin extensively in school was a former Senator from Maine, William Cohen, a graduate of Bowdoin College with a major in Latin. Our paths may have crossed, although I don't remember ever seeing him in person. Senator Cohen's father, Reuben Cohen, owned a bakery across the river from the town where I grew up. It was a great treat for me to go with my parents to Bangor Rye Bakery to buy bread or rolls hot from the oven. William Cohen taught at the University of Maine when I was a student there. If he had taught Latin, I would have met him, since that was my field of study, but instead he taught business administration, a subject I have always avoided.

Besides the Bushes, the other father and son who became U.S. Presidents are John Adams (II) and John Quincy Adams (VI). The letters between Adams II and Thomas Jefferson in their retirement are full of Greek and Latin tags and other evidence of classical learning. Adams VI even translated an ode of Horace (1.22, Integer vitae):
The man in righteousness array'd,
  A pure and blameless liver,
Needs not the keen Toledo blade,
  Nor venom-freighted quiver.
What though he wind his toilsome way
  O'er regions wild and weary—
Through Zara's burning desert stray;
  Or Asia's jungles dreary:

What though he plough the billowy deep
  By lunar light, or solar,
Meet the resistless Simoom's sweep,
  Or iceberg circumpolar.
In bog or quagmire deep and dark
  His foot shall never settle;
He mounts the summit of Mont Blanc,
  Or Popocatepetl.

Or Chimborazo's breathless height
  He treads o'er burning lava;
Or snuffs the Bohan Upas blight:
  The deathful plant of Java.
Through every peril he shall pass,
  By Virtue's shield protected;
And still by Truth's unerring glass
  His path shall be directed.

Else wherefore was it, Thursday last,
  While strolling down the valley,
Defenceless, musing as I pass'd
  A Canzonet to Sally,
A wolf, with tooth protruding snout,
  Forth from the thicket bounded—
I clap'd my hands and raised a shout—
  He heard—and fled—confounded.

Tangier nor Tunis never bred
  An animal more crabbed,
Nor Fez, dry-nurse of lions, fed
  A monster half so rabid;
Not Ararat so fierce a beast
  Has seen since days of Noah;
Nor strung more eager for a feast,
  The fell Constrictor Boa.

Oh! place me where the solar beam
  Has scorch'd all verdure vernal:
Or on the polar verge extreme,
  Block'd up with ice eternal—
Still shall my voice's tender lays
  Of love remain unbroken;
And still my charming SALLY praise,
  Sweet smiling, and sweet spoken.
This imitation of Horace, first published in The Southern Literary Messenger 7 (1841) 705, isn't great poetry, but it's clever. I don't think I'll ever see anything comparable from former Presidents in my lifetime.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?