Man of Many Words

Presidential speechwriter James Humes recaps history as he made it.

JPhoto by Jared Castaldiames Humes could fill a book—or more—with stories from a career spent in the inner circles of presidents, prime ministers and personalities most of us can only read about. Actually, he’s already filled 30-some books, has another five in the works, and continues speaking, teaching and impersonating his worldly subjects of interest. In the process, he’s leaving his own well-documented legacy.

A piece in some of history’s finest puzzles, Humes was one of 70 in the Oval Office when astronaut Neil Armstrong and his crew made contact after touching down on the moon in 1969. Today, he’s in Merion where he and his wife, Dianne, visit longtime friend Jane Krumrine every year to spend time with their four grandchildren. When not visiting Krumrine, Humes’ daughter, Mary, and her kids live in England. In the winter, they visit their grandparents in Pueblo, Colo., to ski.

Humes once called Chestnut Hill home for 30-plus years. An Oct. 28 visit to the area had him speaking on Ronald Reagan at the Union League in Center City. On Dec. 4, he’ll speak at the St. Andrew’s Society of Philadelphia. In between, he celebrated his 74th birthday on Oct. 31, then watched the national election run its course.

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“For the Republicans, it’s been a bad year—period,” concedes the diehard GOP supporter. “The mainstream media has portrayed [Barack Obama] as another Kennedy. It’s like he was born in a manger and can walk on water. With Obama, everyone sees and wants change—and who has ever been against hope?”

Though biased, those words carry some serious weight coming from such a noted scholar and historian. Humes was a speechwriter for five U.S. presidents—Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Reagan and the elder George Bush. A lawyer and former state legislator, he’s served the White House and the U.S. State Department. He’s been a communications adviser to IBM and DuPont. He’s the former Benjamin Franklin Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania at the Fels Institute of Government, and the Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the International Center for Scholars at the Smithsonian. He’s now the Schuck Fellow for the Study of Statecraft at the University of Colorado.

Renowned for his impersonations of Winston Churchill and others, Humes was awarded the Order of the British Empire for his historical works on Churchill and William Shakespeare. And his observations of President George W. Bush zero in on national security and the war in Iraq.

“He had more guts than his father,” Humes says. “Saddam Hussein said he’d bomb us on five occasions. Was he a bragger? As chief executive and commander in chief, the president has to be concerned with the security of his people.”

As for Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, Humes says it was an insult to women to think that we, as a nation, needed a woman on the ticket just because she’s a woman. “Margaret Thatcher wasn’t prime minister because she’s a woman,” he says. “She’s prime minister because she’s good.”

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(It should be noted, of course, that Humes made these comments before Sen. John McCain named Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his GOP running mate.)

Humes has spent a lifetime telling the stories of others. And though one of his tomes is the autobiographical Confessions of a White House Ghostwriter, he requires repeated prompting to get him to tell his own story.

“I’m a bit of a ham,” he finally admits. “But usually, I say enough in the books.”

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Once, at a Union League dinner, Bob Dole, via telegram, jested that Humes encompasses all the best characteristics of our noted Republican presidents, with all the dietary discipline of William Howard Taft, the same aversion to alcohol and cigars as Ulysses S. Grant, and the modesty and humility of Teddy Roosevelt.

Jack Kemp once played on a Churchill line to describe Humes: “He’s an immodest man with much to be immodest about.”

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More seriously, the now-deceased Sen. Jesse Helms once said, “Most speechwriters are footnotes to history; James Humes made history.” And retired Sen. Fritz Hollings always asked Humes to “come down and talk history” with him.

Humes grew up in Williamsport, a largely blue-collar, industrial Pennsylvania town. But the home of Little League baseball has always had a pocket of old wealth tied to its lumberyard industry. The high school’s nickname remains the Millionaires. Humes’ father, Samuel, was a judge and an early would-be candidate for governor before dying at age 40. The youngest of three boys (brother Graham lives in Radnor; Sam teaches in Belgium), Humes hadn’t turned 7.

“I tried to be like my father in so many ways,” Humes says. “My mother said I didn’t have to be like him. But I look very much like my father, and I never thought I would live past his age. So I never worried about taking a job with a pension. I always chose adversity over safety, and challenge over security.”

Before he died, Samuel Humes took his boys to the White House. At 14, James wrote his first inaugural address, reading it after humming along to patriotic marches like “Stars and Stripes Forever,” which he spun on a record player. “It helped me get all geared up,” Humes recalls. “I should’ve been locked up.”

At 18, he met Winston Churchill for the first time. “He took my hand,” Humes recounts, “and said, ‘Young man, study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ It was like meeting Napoleon or Julius Caesar.”

Until then, Humes always had a poster of baseball legend Ted Williams on his bedroom wall. After he returned from England, he replaced it with one of Churchill. Years later, Williams wrote Humes requesting a signed copy of Churchill: Speaker of the Century, his only Pulitzer Prize-nominated book. Humes balked at first, then relented, signing it, “To my first hero, a biography of the hero who replaced him.”

The Churchill encounter and two other early-life experiences taught Humes that we’re all part of a growing thread in the tapestry of history. At 5, he attended the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettys-burg and clearly remembers an old Union soldier pushing a Confederate in a wheelchair around the battlefield. Then, at a retirement home in 1942, he met 100-year-old Anna Gregory Knight, whose father had fought in the Revolutionary War.

“She was the last true daughter of the Revolution,” Humes says. “As I carefully took her bony hand, she said, ‘Yes sir, Grandpappy went down the road, and Pappy ran after him and wanted to go, too, so he became a drummer boy.’ We in America like to proclaim we’re the oldest democracy, but when you think that I shook hands with someone whose father forged that democracy, it isn’t so old in the great scheme of things.”

Upon Nixon’s death, on his bedside table, he left two copies of his principles of statecraft (a Churchillian word for diplomacy). One copy was for Bob Dole, the other for James Humes. They were the very guidelines the former president used in a career distinguished by foreign diplomacy and disgraced by Watergate.

Other countries couldn’t have cared less about the scandal. “I remember Nixon saying to me, ‘They don’t give a goddamn about Watergate,’” Humes says. “Nixon was an introvert in an extrovert’s profession, and he was easily the brightest of the five [presidents] I worked for.”

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Then Humes clears his throat and slips into his Nixon impersonation, speaking through elongated lower teeth. “He’d say, ‘This weekend, I think the Redskins will kick some assh!’ But it never sounded right. Bush and Ford were much better socially, and Reagan used humor as armor, so you always came away enchanted.”

Humes had written for other former Hollywood actors, including Shirley Temple. One speech for a retired Cary Grant, who was addressing a community of middle-aged women, was a sure winner. “All he needed to do was smile,” Humes says. Instead of a script, Humes posed—and Grant practiced—possible questions and answers.

The best speech Humes says he ever wrote was delivered at Sunnyland, Walter Annenberg’s California estate. Ten were in attendance: Annenberg and his wife, Nancy and Ronald Reagan, former Secretary of State George Shultz and his wife, Betty and Gerald Ford, and Colin Powell and his wife. “I’ve had an interesting life,” Humes admits. “I’ve watched all these people at close hand.”

Upon publication of his most recent book, The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, in October 2007, Humes presented a copy to Margaret Thatcher in the House of Lords in London. In a trembling voice, she told him, “James, you won the Cold War without firing a shot.”

Then she paused and, with tear-filled eyes, added, “They threw away the mold when they made Ronnie.”

Humes’ next five projects include Speak Like Reagan and The Wit and Wisdom of Bill Buckley. There’s also a diversion—a novel he co-authored with former U.S. Congressman John LeBoutillier. Titled The Executive Secret, it centers on a Republican president who once had a gay experience at Harvard with an Iranian student. Iran is now blackmailing the U.S. president. If he doesn’t come clean and unveil the scandal—the executive secret—Iran will use its bombs. “It’s not gay bashing,” Humes says. “It’s sympathetic, really. What the hell do you do?”

Another is Target Churchill, which hasn’t attracted a publisher but has sold movie rights. Based on what Churchill’s son told Humes, it’s about the 13 plots on the former leader’s life. Then there’s Only Nixon, based on a trip to China with Edward Nixon, the former president’s brother, and interviews they conducted with Chinese foreign policy experts. “It takes a view from their side,” Humes says. “Nixon was a god over there.”

Humes writes all of his books longhand on yellow legal pads. He also keeps a diary for his grandson and namesake, James, the oldest boy. Entries describe what he’s done that day, where he’s eaten lunch, and what libraries he’s used for research. He’s on his ninth volume.

“I don’t have a lot of money to give him,” he says. “But I have my observations.”

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