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Print Editions Thursday September 28th, 2023

Whitehouse’s book explores American values

The collection of quotations offers famous words and personal anecdotes about politics and patriotism

For the past 20 years, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., has carried a blank book with him, jotting down inspiring quotations as he hears and reads them, from the tenets of Boy Scout Law to a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem on the Providence War Memorial.

When a friend advised him to publish his personal adversaria  for public consumption, Whitehouse sat down to the task at a large table, arranging clips of his quotation collection into suitable categories.

The result is his new book, “On Virtues,” in which he lays out and discusses various quotations in an attempt to capture the essence of being American. With a title reminiscent of philosophical treatises, the book uses a broad range of quotations — from William Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s — to present what Whitehouse calls a “full, honorable and truly American life.”

Whitehouse told The Herald the quotations could provide guidance to those who want to live a good life. You must be engaged “in a cause or endeavor that you are passionate about and that you have worked at long enough to be operating at a level of skillful artisanship,” Whitehouse said.  “Other than falling in love or having wonderful family news or something like that, it’s hard to imagine a better feeling than that,” he added.

Whitehouse begins by introducing himself in the context of his upbringing as the son of a U.S. ambassador who spent his childhood in a whirlwind of often war-torn countries. The first quotation in the collection is deeply personal: “And the Lord said, whom shall I send, and who shall go for us? Then said I, here am I; send me,” from Isaiah 6:8, the Bible verse Whitehouse recited in his father’s eulogy.

“I kind of get goose bumps every time I read it. I just can’t help it,” he said.

His commentary on the quotations is frequently charming, including personal anecdotes and ruminations on the eloquence of speakers like Winston Churchill, whom he clearly admires.

Far from being an anonymous book of quotations, “On Virtues” gives the reader insight into the words by which Whitehouse lives, with much of the book concerning the duties of an elected official.

Whitehouse said he had his children in mind when collecting the quotations. He said he was hoping not only to elucidate the country’s political and legal structures for his children, “but also to have a sense that even if you feel alone, there are an awful lot of people who have fought lonely battles before, and you’re always in their company.”

But this book of quotations and reflections may not hold the same weight for a generation of young people who, on average, do not believe in American exceptionalism with the same fervor as Whitehouse’s baby boomer generation.

In response to a Pew Research Center question, just 31 percent of millennials called the United States the greatest country in the world, compared to 50 percent of baby boomers. In the same survey, 70 percent of millennials called themselves “very patriotic,” compared to 91 percent of baby boomers.

“Millennials have a bit of a disability in that they are coming of age in a time when patriotism is often used and asserted for other political purposes,” he said.

Young people may also be put off by the ostentatious display of patriotism in politics, rather than by the patriotism itself, Whitehouse said.

“People who are turned off by shirtsleeve patriotism can nonetheless find the deeper and realer variety in their own lives and I think inevitably will, sooner or later,” he said.

But not everyone inhabits the same American space as a U.S. senator. The majority of people quoted in “On Virtues” come from a homogenous population of white men — politicians, war heroes, leaders and authors.

The inspiration in the book comes from the specific canon of history’s “great men.”

Whitehouse said he struggled with this idea, especially as he was contemplating his own daughter’s use of the book.

“It does dramatically underrepresent the contributions of women — and it worries me that it does — but I console myself that that’s a result of history rather than a result of bias,” Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse’s patriotism rings from every page — exactly what one would expect from a U.S. senator. But it is tempered with quotations about political failings and human imperfection. Whitehouse’s section on America ends with a gem from Winston Churchill: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”

As for Whitehouse’s favorite quote in the collection, the senator jumps right to Adam Lindsay Gordon: “Life is mostly froth and bubble; Two things stand like stone: Kindness in another’s trouble, courage in one’s own.”


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