At a reception in London in the early 1950s, Winston Churchill gave some advice to a young American. "Study history, study history," Churchill said gravely. "In history lies all the secrets of statecraft."
Ever since, James Humes has been compiling a massive file of political anecdotes and historical oddities. He knows, for example, that the Chinese character for bureaucrat is a person with two mouths. And that on an island near Sicily, legislators once introduced bills by standing on a chair with a rope around their necks. If a bill passed, the rope was removed; if it failed, the chair was removed.
As a speechwriter for Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Robert Dole, Robert Griffin, George McGovern, and William Simon, Humes has had plenty of opportunities. Today Humes is a Philadelphia lawyer who still spends part of his time in Washington lobbying or h helping ooldd political friends with speeches. He also keeps a wry eye on nationalal politics and is the author of a new book, How To GetInvited To The White House.
"A speechwriter is like a cosmetician," Humes says. "He makes people look pretty - people want pretty words. Like this: 'Our country is caught in a savage conflict between realists with too few ideals and idealists with too many illusions.'"
Humes laughs loudly: "I think both Agnew and McGovern used that. I figure until it gets identifiend with one politician, it's mine. Or here's one on protests I wrote for Nixon: 'More than the picketer who serves to burn, we need the pilgrim who burns to serve.'"
Humes again laughs at the ease with which he turns such phrasess. "Nixon didn't use that - he fiddled to death with it. Me, I'm willing to sacrifice a scintilla of nuance for a ton of alliteration. Like the one I wrote for Agnew on protesters: 'We don't want those who either defy the flag or deify it!'"
Another hearty laugh.
His brief encounter with Churchill fostered an affection Humes repays by portraying the statesman on stage and television. (A great rumbling voice and stout frame aid his uncanny impersonation.) After studying abroad and obtaining a law degree, Humes returned to his home town of William-sport, Pennsylvania, to run for the state legislature as a Republican. Accused of carpetbagging, he once told a skeptical conservative audience he did indeed own land in town; waving a deed to a family cemetery plot, he said "six generations of Humes rest there and, God willing, so will a seventh.'" Humes said his brother sitting in the audience, "nearly threw up." Humes, 27 won.
More recently he visited Gerald Ford in California, refreshing Ford's memory of his White House years by recalling anecdotes for Ford to elaborate in his autobiography. While some lobbyists curry favor with politicians by helping to raise campaign funds, Humes says he stays in touch by writing one-liners for speeches.
Not everyone has enjoyed his jocular approach to government, however. He was kicked upstairs to a State Department job after a stint as a speechwriter for President Nixon because, Humes says, he just didn't fit in.
"They were Western, I was Eastern; they were thin, I was fat; I had a strong profile, they stayed low. At a going-away party a man whose name I will not memtion gave me two bottles of imported Germannann, white, non-alcoholic grape juice. Can you believe it? I should give one to the Smithsonian as goooood, graphic history: it's German, it's white (pale and colorless) and there's no spirit."
CHurchill, Humes is certain, would have appreciated the significance.