The Quotable Senator
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.”
Whitehouse writes that his family never talked about the hardships they endured in service to the country or why. “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.”
And that’s exactly what the book aims to do by quoting others, though Whitehouse takes the time to give context to the quotes he collected over a 20-year period, all in a small nondescript notebook.
“Sometimes a quote doesn’t make any sense unless you’ve got some history around it,” Whitehouse said.
As an example, he said the daring shown in Adm. Lord Nelson’s quote (on Page 27 of his book) about ignoring a signal to disengage from the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen has more gravity when you know that another admiral had been recently condemned to death for failing to follow orders.
Whitehouse also takes time to relate some quotes to his personal life. The first passage in the book is a quote from Isaiah: “And the Lord said, whom shall I send, and who shall go for us? Then said I, here am I; send me.” Whitehouse notes that he used the quote for his father’s eulogy because “it captured well his lifetime of service.”
Tucked in among the Daniel Webster, Winston Churchill and William Shakespeare quotes are lines from everyday people Whitehouse has met during his life.
For example, he attributes a quote about the importance of being honest and loving to his brother’s friend Earl, who spoke at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the senator attended with his brother.
In another passage, he quotes his own son: “‘Hey, you know what? Whenever I fall, I make it into a move.’ — My son, Alexander, age 6, on dancing (and life).”
Whitehouse said he hopes readers of the quotes he first began collecting for use in the courtroom will inspire public servants, such as those he works with in Congress, to bring “more of a sense of conscience in the service of justice … and a sense of both proportion and principle” to political battles.
One of his favorite quotes — from 19th-century French Prime Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord — illustrates this point, he said.
“One ought not to be obstinate, except when one ought to be; but when one ought to be, then one ought to be unshakable.”