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It went unsaid in Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s childhood home, whether that home was in Guinea, Cambodia, the Philippines or any of the other outposts his father was stationed at as a foreign service officer.
That “elephant in the room,” as the Rhode Island Democrat recently put it, was the idea that public service was a noble and worthwhile pursuit, even if it meant enduring revolutions, house arrest and non-potable water in dangerous countries during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Whitehouse’s father, Charles Sheldon Whitehouse, and his ideal of serving the nation with a higher purpose, is the inspiration for the senator’s new book, “On Virtues: Quotations and Insight to Live a Full, Honorable, and Truly American Life.”
“On Virtues” is a compilation of great quotations and, at first glance, it might be dismissed as just another slapdash collection to be used primarily by desperate speechwriters. But it is a deeply personal book for Whitehouse, who talked with CQ Roll Call about the lessons he learned growing up as a diplomat’s kid and the guiding principles his father lived by.
“Most every young man either takes inspiration from his father or wishes he could,” Whitehouse said. “I was fortunate in that I could.”
He said the way his father lived his life “signified a moral code or creed,” and his father entered into public service with a sense of “higher purpose.”
Whitehouse described it as “a notion that that higher purpose has something to do with our country” and that the purpose of the country is to “set an exemplary role — to lead people to fairer and better forms of governance.”
In the book’s introduction, Whitehouse relates the danger his family faced in Guinea and his father’s attempt to hide walkie-talkies in grocery bags to be given to fellow Americans who were under house arrest. He also talks about the fear his mother felt when his brother was bitten by a dog, noting a friend’s mother had died from rabies because the vaccine was hard to find.
Indeed, the story of Whitehouse’s childhood is fascinating, but one that he is reluctant to expound on outside the book’s nine-page introduction. Asked why he didn’t write a memoir instead, Whitehouse said, “I guess I didn’t think it was that important. In this book, I think it does provide some context.”