Impressed by a quote he came across in a newspaper editorial, Nelson Rockefeller asked a staff aid to arrange a meeting with St. Thomas Aquinas, who died in 1274.
Review of “On His Own Terms: A Life of Nelson Rockefeller”
by Richard Norton Smith, The New York Times Book Review
“This Aquinas guy is the real deal!”
I’m living the nightmare of every political intern; off on a wild goose chase to track down a quote or an expert that the candidate read or heard or saw somewhere, he’s not sure which. Maybe from a passing train on a whistle-stop campaign, maybe in Little Italy when he stopped for cannoli, maybe in the men’s room at an Elk’s Lodge after a fundraiser. “How the hell should I know!” Mr. Rockefeller yelled at me when I asked him where I was going to find St. Thomas Aquinas. “Just get him–pronto!”
“Hmm–’Whip Inflation Now?’ Yeah–THAT’s the ticket!”
It isn’t easy working for the only unelected Vice President in American History. Maybe I should go back to school and get my masters–it would make a great thesis. “Trends in Ethnic Voting for Unelected Federal Officials,” something like that. No time for that now, though. I gotta track down this Aquinas guy.
I check the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, the go-to source for all things saintly and find him right away. Guy’s got a HUGE entry: Dominican friar, priest, theologian, philosopher. A real chief-cook-and-bottle-washer type. Well, he is Dominican.
I can understand why Senator Rockefeller wants to upgrade his image by calling on the aphoristic skills of a guy famous for dropping such gems as “The things that we love tell us what we are.”
The Senator has a tendency to, er, stumble when he’s speaking. “The chief problem of low-income people is poverty.” That one isn’t making it into Bartlett’s. His biggest hit–”The secret to success is to own nothing, but control everything”–was met with a good deal of skepticism, since he owned everything.
Hey–use your words!
This Aquinas guy, by contrast, really knows how to pluck the heartstrings in a deeply philosophical way: “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” Seven centuries after he died it’s still showing up on throw pillows and beer coozies.
I give him a ring at the number listed in the dictionary, and his beadle picks up.
“Is, uh, Doctor Angelicus there?” I ask hesitantly, using the name he’s known by among Scholastic philosophers.
“Who may I say is calling?”
I give him my name and my “quals” as political consultants say: undergraduate degree in philosophy, straight A in medieval philosophy, pre-Vatican II altar boy, captain of the Seventh Grade School Crossing . . .
“Okay, no need to gild the lily,” the functionary says. “I’ll see if he’s available.”
The guy drops the phone and I hear him shuffling off. Probably wearing papal slippers.
A few minutes pass and the great man picks up the receiver. “Yell-o!” he says, sliding into the conversation the way my dad and other ancients of his generation did to show they were regular guys, go-getters.
“Saint . . .” I begin.
“Please–call me Thom,” he says with perfect enunciation so I can hear the “h.” I guess if you’re the father of Thomism, you want to keep your brand out there as much as possible.
I started to say that I was a staffer for Vice President Nelson Rockefeller when he interrupted.
“The original Rockefeller Republican?” the saint asked. “America’s only unelected Vice President?”
“That’s him. He’d like to have lunch with you sometime.”
“Wow–this would be the pinnacle of my career if I weren’t already dead.”
“Well, when you think of all the great things you’ve written. The commentaries on Aristotle, your Summa Theologiae . . .”
“Don’t forget ‘Fundamentals of Water Skiing.’”
I was dumbstruck. My persistent failure to learn the sport was a source of shame to my father, who rented a cabin at the Lake of the Ozarks and watched other boys–and girls!–get up on their second or even first try and spend countless hours of fun out on the water under the glorious Missouri sun, inhaling outboard motor fumes. Had I known there was a philosophy book that provided instruction in America’s favorite surface water sport, I might have mastered it.
If they can do it, why not me?
“You were saying?” Aquinas said, recalling me from my bitter reverie.
“Oh, yeah. He uh, read one of your quotes in an editorial . . .”
“Beware the man of a single book?”
“No, not that one.”
“Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath and a glass of wine?”
“You see that a lot in Pottery Barn catalogs.”
“That place is so crowded nobody goes there anymore?”
“I thought that was Yogi Berra.”
“He got it from me–the original goombah.“
“No, it was something inspirational.”
“I’d be happy to break bread with him, but we’re separated by seven centuries, and the great divide between the living and the dead.”
Aristotle, wearing a chic but casual little number he picked up at Chico’s.
I hated to break the news to the saint, but I had to. “Uh, the old Aristotelian unities?”
“Of time, place and action?”
“They were overthrown by the Absurdists.”
“So you can put this meeting together . . .”
“For purposes of this post, and this post only . . .”
“Cool!” I hate it when the elderly and the dead try to appear “hip” by using outdated slang, but I have to say Old Thom was able to pull it off.
I phoned ahead and made sure the staff had plenty of Italian wine and something besides Chef Boy-ar-dee on hand for the fateful encounter, then we made our way to Number One Observatory Circle, the official residence of the Vice President of the U-nited States of America.
“Do you have Chef Boy-ar-dee in a can? Well, let him out!”
Rocky was, as always, the hale-fellow-well-met, booming out “Well hello there!” to Aquinas as if they were college fraternity brothers, mixing him a scotch-and-soda, fussing about like the hostess at a women’s bridge club. I hoped more senior staffers had briefed the Veep on the full spectrum of Thomist thought, and not just the one-liners. It was Rockefeller, after all, who upon hearing of the harm that aerosol products had on the earth’s ozone layer, had asked “How do all those spray cans get up there?”
The two–or perhaps one-and-a-half–great men palavered for a bit, then Rocky got down to brass tacks. “Gosh I’d love to be able to use bon mots (which the VP pronounced “bone moats”) in conversation like you. How do you do it? Give me some pointers.”
“Well,” Aquinas began, “as Shakespeare said through the tedious Polonius, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit.’”
“So keep it snappy, huh?”
“Exactly. ‘Everything evil is rooted in some good, and everything false in some truth.’ Don’t elaborate–always leave them wanting some more.”
“Please–that’s one of my best lines!”
“Wow–that’s a doozy. What’s it mean?”
“It doesn’t matter what it means.”
“Nope. You can drop a little bomblet like that in a speech about bipartisanship, or the nature of evil, or your grandson’s annoying habit of putting chewing gum in your cat’s hair.”
“So I can use it over and over again?”
“On the nosey,” the great saint said.
The scion of the Rockefeller oil dynasty took it all in. “Gee, that’s terrific. How much do I owe . . .”
“Please–my pleasure. I’m just glad that people still read me lo these many years after my death.”
A look of consternation clouded Rockefeller’s face. “You’re dead?”
I gulped the gulp of the neophyte caught out by the hierophant: “Yes,” I muttered meekly.
“Dad blast it–why didn’t you tell me?” Rocky said, turning the full force of his personality upon me.
“I . . . I meant to tell you, it’s in the briefing book.”
BIG mistake. Apparently everybody but me knew that the Vice President had severe dyslexia, and never read anything if he could help it.
“You’ve got to tell me these things!” Rocky fumed.
“Please–don’t take it out on a lowly staffer,” Aquinas interjected. “Nobody remembers me.”
“That’s not true. There are a lot of kids named Tom, probably named after you. I doubt anybody will ever name a kid after me,” Rocky said in a rare moment of reflection on his legacy.
“You will be remembered, my son,” Aquinas said with a note of reverence in his voice, “as someone who dedicated himself to public service, lived a full life, and died a happy man.”
“Really?” Rocky asked, a bit awe-struck at the vision the saint had sketched out for him.
“Yes. Death by coitus is the way to come, and the way to go.”