They Don’t Make Them Like That Any More

Charles Evans Hughes
Charles Evans Hughes; drawing by David Levine

Throughout my childhood and youth I suffered from being invariably identified as the grandson of one of the country’s most prominent citizens. It was an awkward situation, which I handled mostly by evasion: I counted it a triumph when I managed for a few days or weeks to make my mark on my own without somebody referring to my antecedents. Subsequently, when I settled on the profession of historian, I found another reason for discretion: if I spoke or wrote of Charles Evans Hughes, how could I be true both to my calling and to family loyalty? And so my self-imposed silence continued for a quarter century after my grandfather’s death.

Of late, however, my reticence has begun to strike me as strained and pedantic. After all, during the last two years of his life, when I was living in Washington, I dined with him twice a week; no one else, I think, saw him with quite this regularity. At the time, he had just completed his Autobiographical Notes, which, he told me, he never intended for publication. Their belated appearance suggests that the moment has come for me to write on so delicate and difficult a topic, more particularly since the bare record my grandfather left behind him seems to call for a personal interpretation.

There is a further reason for finally trying to put down my thoughts: it is no longer true that I come from a prominent family. To the American public the name Hughes now stands for an eccentric and fabulously wealthy recluse. Most people, especially the young, know almost nothing of Charles Evans Hughes. Diplomats remember him as a skillful, no-nonsense secretary of state who appreciated the work of the career foreign service. Lawyers recall a thoroughly professional chief justice who gave firm but tactful leadership to his colleagues. In 1960 the press briefly evoked his presidential race of 1916 as the closest of the century. And that is about all.

Such is the riddle Hughes presents. How could a figure who loomed so large in his own day have become so misty in current memory? Initially one may hazard the guess that our contemporaries find something unbelievable about a man who looked like God, to whom integrity was so much second nature that it would never remotely have entered his head to commit the sort of acts which in the early 1970s were routine in the highest spheres of government, and whose life with one great exception embraced everything to which an American statesman might aspire. The career is too nearly perfect: it seems to leave no chink through which the weakness of common humanity might make Hughes’s career credible to an age of ethical mediocrities and fallen idols.

The editors of the Autobiographical Notes offer no real answer. Their introduction is comprehensive and balanced, and they have done a conscientious job of…

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