Penn portraits

Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania

For this “Out and About” we didn’t actually go anywhere. We felt like we did, though. In the pages of Samuel Hughes’ new book “Penn in Ink: Pathfinders, Swashbucklers, Scribblers & Sages” we traveled through Penn’s 250-year history. Hughes, senior editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, has interviewed and written about some of the University’s most celebrated—in some cases most notorious—characters, and in this volume he has brought together profiles of some of the most fascinating, from Zane Grey to Noam Chomsky to Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Whether he’s writing about a historical figure like Ezra Pound or a contemporary faculty member such as Martin Seligman, Hughes brings to his work an unquenchable curiosity and a sense of humor. In this excerpt, which is actually a postscript to a piece on the late Emeritus Professor of Political Science Robert-Strausz-Hupé (who had asked Hughes to help him write the second volume of his autobiography), Hughes recalls his last meetings with the Austrian-born diplomat and geopolitician:

“Even as his strength was fading, his will showed its steel. One windy November morning in 1997 he announced that he wanted to dictate an essay. I was surprised, as the plan had been for me to go into his basement and bring up some old files for him to look over, but I had my laptop with me, so I set it up in his study and began to type as he spoke. His voice was so faint that I could barely make out the words, and he often paused for 15, 30, 45 seconds between phrases. Yet he eventually delivered, off the top of his head, a subtle, insightful essay—about 750 words if memory serves—on the geopolitical relationship between Russia and China, the U.S. interest in that relationship, and its potential flashpoints.

At one point, he abruptly stopped talking and shuffled off to the bathroom, leaning heavily on his walker. Just before he reached the hallway, he turned and, in a wryly mournful voice, quoted De Gaulle: “Old age is a shipwreck.” Five minutes went by; then 10. When he finally shuffled back into the room his first words were: “Dash-dash.” It took me a moment to realize that he was simply picking up where he had left off, in mid-sentence. And so it went, for well over an hour. When he finished, he listened as I read back what he had dictated. I believe he changed two words.

I visited a few times after that, and attended the FPRI’s celebration of his 95th birthday, but my time was consumed with my young family and my job, and to my regret I did not see him for the last year and a half of his life.
One of my last memories came during the Monica Lewinsky furor. We were not on the same side of that issue, and while it may have dampened my wit it didn’t affect his. “The cow has fallen into the well,” he shrugged, adding that Clinton had brought the whole mess onto himself. “Clinton is a great tactical perjurer,” he added dryly. “Perhaps the greatest we have ever had.”

When he suggested that the entire political process was “rotten to the core,” I agreed; when I suggested that the rot included Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, he did not. “I don’t mind Gingrich,” he said, though he conceded that the Congressman had a “serious flaw.” I leaned closer, not wanting to miss the trenchant character analysis that would inevitably follow. “ A bad haircut,” he said finally, and settled back in his chair, enjoying my hilarity. It was the mark of a great diplomat: able to disarm a potential opponent with a quip without giving an inch on his fundamental beliefs.”

(From “Penn in Ink: Pathfinders, Swashbucklers, Scribblers & Sages,” Xlibris, 2006. For more information, go to www.penninink.com).

Originally published on October 19, 2006.

Originally published on October 19, 2006