James Humes 1934-2020: Irrepressible Admirer of Old Excellence

James Humes 1934-2020: Irrepressible Admirer of Old Excellence

James Calhoun Humes

has died at 85. From his celes­tial perch, he is prob­a­bly won­der­ing about this lit­tle trib­ute. He was con­vinced, I heard, that he had giv­en “mor­tal affront” by his imper­son­ations of Sir Win­ton Churchill. Or, in my case, by pub­lish­ing a book of Churchill quotes, many of which he man­gled, some of which he made up. I guess in lat­er life, he thought we’d writ­ten him off. Not quite.
Humes was born in Penn­syl­va­nia to Samuel Hamil­ton Humes and Eleanor Kathryn Gra­ham. He was descend­ed from ear­ly set­tlers of Vir­ginia and Ten­nessee. His emi­grant ances­tor was Thomas Humes (1768-1816), born in Cas­tle Hume, Fer­managh, Ire­land. He was a descen­dant of Irish nobil­i­ty and Scot­tish roy­al­ty. His great-great-grandfather’s law part­ner invit­ed Lin­coln to speak at Get­tys­burg in 1863.
Ipso fac­to, Humes was what we used to call a “blue blood.” His prog­e­ny car­ried on the tra­di­tion. His daugh­ter matric­u­lat­ed at the famous St Paul’s School in Con­cord, New Hamp­shire. On her first day, one of her left-lean­ing teach­ers asked new stu­dents their pol­i­tics. Miss Humes replied: “I’m a monar­chist.” Con­grats and high fives all round. They thought she’d said “Marx­ist.”

Meeting Sir Winston

We met over shared admi­ra­tion of Sir Win­ston Churchill, whom Jamie had actu­al­ly met as a boy of 19. It was 27 May 1953. Churchill was serv­ing his sec­ond (well, tech­ni­cal­ly his third) term as Prime Min­is­ter. He had just spo­ken at West­min­ster Hall on the upcom­ing Coro­na­tion of Her Majesty The Queen. Humes was enrolled at Stowe School in Buck­ing­hamshire on an Eng­lish-Speak­ing Union scholarship.

They met out­side a lift (ele­va­tor). “Sir,” spoke up the pre­co­cious school­boy: “What should I study?” The great man regard­ed him: “Young man, study his­to­ry. In his­to­ry lie all the secrets of state­craft.” Back at Stowe, Humes took down his dorm room poster of Boston Red Sox colos­sus Ted Williams and replaced it with a poster of Win­ston Spencer Churchill.

Meeting Nixon

Humes stud­ied Law at The George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty and became a pres­i­den­tial speech­writer, begin­ning with Eisen­how­er. In 1968, his ency­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of Amer­i­can his­to­ry attract­ed notice of the Nixon cam­paign. He wrote speech­es for Pres­i­dents Nixon and Ford as well. He met his late wife Dianne when she was on Vice-Pres­i­dent Nixon’s staff in the late 1950s.

Lat­er Humes wrote sev­er­al books about Churchill, Lin­coln and oth­ers. The best Churchill titles were The Sir Win­ston Method: The Five Secrets of Speak­ing the Lan­guage of Lead­er­ship (1991) and Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lin­coln (2002). These are worth seek­ing out, because they are the only analy­ses of Churchill’s ora­to­ry from a pres­i­den­tial speechwriter.

One of a kind

Jamie Humes left us with a pas­sel of mem­o­ries, not all of them com­fort­able. We caught him puff­ing a big cig­ar in defi­ance of the rules at Churchill con­fer­ences, even before the age of No-Smok­ing-At-All. This caused a young doo­fus from The New Repub­lic to brand us all as cig­ar-smok­ing Win­ston Wannabees. Espe­cial­ly when he heard Humes imper­son­ate Sir Winston.
That was not some­thing I ever enjoyed. Jamie just dolled up the image, play­ing a car­i­ca­ture. With great excep­tions—Robert Hardy, Gary Old­man—imper­son­ators over­play the role and over­do the props. We had to warn him nev­er to per­form in front of Lady Soames—noto­ri­ous­ly the hard­est audi­ence of all!
RML to Humes: “(1) Hate to tell you, but you need to know … (2) Our miss­ing speak­er has arrived, so you’re off the card … (3) Sure, say some after-din­ner words. Remem­ber, no imper­son­ations!” (1993 Churchill Con­fer­ence, Wash­ing­ton DC)
He was some­times a pres­ence, and not always a wel­come one, at more schol­ar­ly Churchill activ­i­ties. An impor­tant sym­po­sium in Wash­ing­ton with dis­tin­guished schol­ars con­vened for din­ner, and we couldn’t stop Humes from hold­ing forth. When he referred to Lady Rhodes James as “an Eng­lish rose,” her hus­band, the prick­ly Sir Robert, asked, “Who is that dread­ful man?”

White House tales

At oth­er times he regaled us with the most out­ra­geous, yet almost believ­able, White House sto­ries. In 1974 after Nixon resigned in dis­grace, Humes remem­bered pay­ing a vis­it to the exiled Pres­i­dent at San Clemente.
I walked the fog­gy coastal path toward the house. Sud­den­ly, RICHARD NIXON loomed up out of the mist! He was all alone, wear­ing his jack­et with the Pres­i­den­tial seal. His shoul­ders sagged. He looked at me and said: “I’m sor­ry I let you down.” I drove to the near­est bar and downed three dou­ble scotches….
That’s noth­ing, com­pared to my favorite Humes White House tale…

Nixon’s moon plaque

Along with William Safire and Pat Buchanan, James Humes is cred­it­ed for author­ing the text on the Apol­lo 11 lunar plaque: “Here men from the plan­et Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
But that, as Jamie told it, wasn’t the whole sto­ry. His first draft, very care­ful­ly word­ed, was quite different:
“Just As Man Explores Space, 
Human­i­ty Under­stands Mankind’s End­less Search.”
In high dud­geon, Pres­i­dent Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Halde­man sum­moned Jamie to his office. “You think you’re pret­ty damn smart, don’t you?”
Read­ers, I won’t tell you what Humes was try­ing to do. If Bob Halde­man could fig­ure it out, you can.

We lived in interesting times

If James Humes didn’t leave his mark on the moon, he cer­tain­ly left it on the plan­et oppo­site. He spent five years 1999-2004 as emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of lan­guage and lead­er­ship at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Col­orado, now Col­orado State Uni­ver­si­ty Pueblo, lec­tur­ing, harangu­ing, discoursing.

He liked to teach how the mean­ings of words change over time. When Sir Christo­pher Wren com­plet­ed St. Paul’s Cathe­dral in 1675, Queen Cather­ine declared: “Wren, I find your cathe­dral awful, ter­ri­ble, and amus­ing.” What she meant, Humes explained, was “awe-inspir­ing, tremen­dous, and amazing.”

In lat­er years he spoke in a high-pitched, raspy voice, about Churchill, about Rea­gan, about Lincoln—so very impres­sive­ly about Lin­coln. Were his lec­tures any good? Just lis­ten to “The Inside Sto­ry of the Get­tys­burg Address.” (Click here and start at minute 5). The ques­tion answers itself.

He was a  jol­ly com­pan­ion, a mad­den­ing dis­trac­tion, a larg­er than life pres­ence. A friend adds: “Don’t for­get enter­tain­ing, lus­cious­ly irrev­er­ent, and gen­er­al­ly auda­cious.” And—this above all—he was a con­nois­seur and admir­er of Old Excel­lence. Rest in Peace, my friend.

* * *

Dona­tions in James Humes’s mem­o­ry may be sent to the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Union, 144 East 39th Street, New York, New York 10016.

3 thoughts on “James Humes 1934-2020: Irrepressible Admirer of Old Excellence

  1. Jamie Humes was a schol­ar and a roman­tic at heart. He is missed.

  2. I had the sin­gu­lar good for­tune to take two speech­writ­ing class­es with him in grad­u­ate school. To this day he remains the most superla­tive instruc­tion in pub­lic speak­ing and pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion I have ever received. His mem­o­ry is a blessing.

  3. Belat­ed thanks for this won­der­ful trib­ute. I was very for­tu­nate in the late-1980s to take instruc­tion from Mr. Humes. His instruc­tions were: 1) speak or write for impact, and 2) when doing an intro­duc­tion, don’t recite the speaker’s resume….but tell the audi­ence why they ought to want to hear the speak­er. Mr. Humes made a sig­nif­i­cant impact on me, and I regret my fail­ure to ever prop­er­ly thank him.

    Thank-you. I remem­ber, and try to fol­low, his wise advice about intro­duc­tions. He had many virtues. —RML

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