August 17, 1995

August 17, 1995 | Commentary on Political Thought

ED081795c: Renaissance Man

I was telling some of my colleagues the other day about the remarkable career of my friend J. William (Bill) Middendorf II, and it occurred to me how few renaissance men grace today's world. It's our loss.

Today, Americans seem most impressed by two-sport athletes, billionaire investors, tell-all sex therapists, and actors, models and politicians who can chew gum and tie their shoelaces at the same time. Deion Sanders of Atlanta is a hero because he plays both professional baseball and football. When I was in college, 6-foot, 10-inch Gene Conley played center for the Boston Celtics, and during the off-season threw fastballs for the Red Sox. Basketball superstar Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls gave baseball a try, but several hundred feeble at-bats later decided to return full-time to his specialty.

I mean no disrespect toward professional athletes, but if this -- or the professional politicians who inhabit Washington and our state capitals -- constitute America's vision of the heroic man (and I include the distaff side here, too, of course) we are in big trouble.

The classic renaissance man is rare enough. Thomas Jefferson, our third president, was an architect, diplomat, lawyer, political philosopher, scientist and brilliant writer. He founded and designed the original campus of the University of Virginia, near his beloved Charlottesville estate, Monticello. Benjamin Franklin was a scientist and statesman, founder -- in 1794 -- of the U.S. Post Office, and among the co-authors, with Jefferson, of the Declaration of Independence. Theodore Roosevelt was a politician, statesman, conservationist, and outdoorsman. In 1906, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending the Russian-Japanese War.

A wonderful new book, "The Sign of the Golden Grasshopper," by the late Perry Gresham (Jameson Books, $24.95), tells the story of Gresham's ancestral hero, Sir Thomas Gresham, the merchant adventurer who served as financial advisor to four British monarchs, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. (Gresham's law: "Bad money drives out good.")

The book takes its name from the Gresham family coat of arms. Once reputed to be the richest man in England, Sir Thomas, when not advising monarchs or amassing fortunes, was a spy, royal smuggler, diplomat and early philanthropist. He is credited with almost single-handedly saving the realm (a fancy term for "the throne" to us non-Anglophiles) from its wealthier rival, King Philip II of Spain. He had a helping hand, of course, from Sir Francis Drake, the global explorer who in 1588 led the British fleet against Spain's supposedly invincible Armada (much of which ended up on the rocks off the coast of Ireland, thanks to heavy seas and bad weather.)

While Bill Middendorf has never been a spy or smuggler like Gresham, to the best of my knowledge many other titles certainly fit: diplomat, financier and philanthropist. An investment banker, now in his mid-70s, Middendorf served three U.S. presidents, as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, Secretary of the Navy, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States, and U.S. Ambassador to the European Community.

But that's only the public man. He is also an art critic and historian, composer (of seven symphonies, an opera, and numerous marches, including the "Heritage Foundation March" and "U.S. Naval Academy March"), and an accomplished athlete: winning the national masters sculling championship in 1979 and the world masters rowing championship in 1985, at the age of 61.

There are very few giants such as these on the scene today. Compared to the likes of Middendorf and Gresham, President Clinton is just another crafty lawyer turned career politician and Donald Trump is a four-bit speculator.

What ever happened to greatness?

Return to The Heritage Foundation's Commentarysection.

Note: Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

Related Issues: Political Thought