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dinnerRepublican presidential hopeful Newton Leroy Gingrich was asked to name six people with whom he would most like to have dinner, and The Imaginative Conservative invites its readers to do the same.

Unconventionally, the question did not specify a single dinner party so the former House Speaker can presumably dine with each of his guests individually. Being traditionalists, we will stick to the usual formula of you, your spouse (or “spousal equivalent”), plus six guests for one supper.

An online poll asked Mr. Gingrich to name his six, and then lets visitors compose their own invitation lists. He replied,

  1. Thomas Edison
  2. Charles Darwin
  3. Orville Wright
  4. Wilbur Wright
  5. Winston Churchill
  6. John Ford

That’s three inventors, one scientist, a politician and a film-director, all relatively modern figures: all bar one died in the Twentieth Century.

No one is invited from earlier times; from Classical Greece to the Renaissance, from the Enlightenment to America’s Founders through America’s Civil War. No religious leaders such as Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad or even Joseph Smith (Mr. Mitt Romney was not polled), nor philosophers from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas to Burke, Wittgenstein or even Noam Chomsky. No Pericles, Plato, Plutarch, Saints Peter or Paul, Peter the Great, a roomful of popes named Pius, Paul or John Paul, or a few English kings named Plantagenet, just drawing at random from names starting with the letter “P”.

The mind boggles, particularly since the host is a self-described historian. Maybe he thinks that he has read everything already, but surely a cheeseburger with Thucydides, or a salmon mousse with Frederick the Great, or ham salad with John Adams, or kebabs with Suleiman the Magnificent would be tempting. Apparently not enough.

On the guest-list we find no artists, architects or composers. No writers or poets either: Shakespeare sits at home uninvited, spurned for merely a tolerably good director who, one supposes, shot some of the host’s favourite movies. Mr. Gingrich prefers the guy who made “Stagecoach” to, say, the guy who carved the Pieta. One recalls Hermann Goering saying, “When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my revolver.”

Perhaps culture, history and wisdom matter little to an allegedly dynamic, self-styled modern man-of-action who prefers practical matters including science.  Darwin would be interesting, but more so than Leonardo or Copernicus, Newton or Boyle, Linnaeus or Fleming, Crick or Einstein? Maybe the former Speaker always wanted to visit the Galapagos, or longs to alienate the Creationist vote.

His horde of inventors is more perplexing still. One must presume that, in an exercise such as this, long dead and recently resurrected guests have kept up with current affairs from Paradise, otherwise they would monopolise the conversation catching up on the last umpteen centuries. Long after the dessert, then, Mr. Gingrich would still be trying to explain Facebook to Edison and TSA to Orville and Wilbur (although he may enjoy himself talking).

Besides, how interesting would an inventor be, explaining what well-known problems he saw and his clever solutions that we already know? (“I felt my windpipe vibrate while making rude noises for my children, and I wondered if I could preserve the sound on a wax cylinder…”). With another guest-list the host could turn away to chat with Saint Augustine, or even Lady Gaga.

Why the Wright Brothers and why both of them, for goodness’ sake, and at the expense of not having Galileo? If you want brothers, at least the Marx Brothers had different personalities. Is it rude to invite only one? (“Sorry, Wilbur, we didn’t bring Orville back to life because we wanted Steve Jobs?”). What could one brother say that the other could not? (“No, you are being forgetful again: it was not a No. 5 wrench, it was a No. 4!”). A few minutes of that and the host would retreat to the kitchen to watch Edison disassemble the microwave.

When political celebrities are asked similar questions there is ever a temptation to play to the cheap seats. Asked their favourite food, Ronald Reagan replied macaroni and cheese, and Margaret Thatcher said poached eggs on Marmite toast: plain-folks’ fare and possibly even true. But what politician would have dared to say Beluga followed by pheasant-under-glass, washed down with a gargle of Pétrus? So are these the guests with whom Mr. Gingrich truly longs to dine?

He may have given a politician’s calculated reply, choosing recent notables whom even modern Americans could recognise, biased towards “problem-solving,” brainy inventors who reflect his intended image. We will not know. Besides, whatever his real desires, no audience would have identified Pico della Mirandola, and he could hardly have admitted to wanting a candle-lit supper with Miss Marilyn Chambers, the late porn-star.

The public chose differently, albeit in a self-selected and unscientific forum. So far, their top six are (in order), Lincoln, Jesus, Einstein, Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin (Reagan comes seventh).

They all sound more interesting than Mr. Gingrich’s choices, with the possible exception of Churchill. Moreover, again apart from Churchill, the public picks sound like better dinner companions: Lincoln was a first-rate raconteur, and Franklin would be especially good company with witty, informed and wide-ranging conversation. While Ben calls for (lots) more claret and recalls happy days among the philosophers and courtesans of Versailles, elsewhere in the restaurant the former Speaker could learn what kind of baling-wire best holds a biplane together.

And to be fair, the candidate could be discomfited by General Washington’s, Professor Einstein’s and Dr. King’s questions on his foreign policy and human rights positions, and Our Lord’s opinions on much more. Only with Lincoln might he get off easy (“Yeah, I never liked that habeas corpus stuff either!”).

In terms of the body-politic, this is a useful exercise despite the former Speaker’s unsatisfying list. Dinner guests may tell us more about a candidate, his focus and values than listening to misleading speeches or ambiguous sound-bites. If a candidate were wired up to a polygraph machine while reading his guest-list, maybe all other pre-election events could be suspended.

In this way we might have been spared two presidential terms of Richard Nixon (“Let’s see, Nero’s good fun, and Heliogabalus. Mustn’t forget Caligula…”) and the same of Bill Clinton (“Selma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Monica and that check-out girl in the 7-11 on K Street. Also that brunette that the state troopers found in Little Rock, you know, the one with the big, um, hair…”).

If we at TIC revert to the standard version of picking six guests for a single supper party, it all becomes more complicated.

Does one mix artists and scientists and scholars, men of action and moral or religious leaders together, when one type may not have much in common with the others? If so, is William Penn going to get along with Elvis and Erwin Rommel?

If one chooses all guests from one category does the conversation go stale? When Christ makes an observation while passing the port, what if Buddha, Mohammad, Guru Nanak, Krishnamurti and Lao Tse only nod and smile serenely?

Similar for extroverts versus contemplative folk: does one invite Benvenuto Cellini and Emily Dickenson? What about brilliant but egotistical monologists? (“And if Werner ‘Smarty-Pants’ Heisenberg will let me get a word in edgewise…”). Can a distain for “gender balance” supersede the immutable, cosmic rule of girl-boy-girl-boy seating? Would the Moghul Emperor Babur (“No pork for me, please!”) mind using the restroom at the top of the stairs?

These problems become your problems as you nominate six guests for dinner, all real people whether dead or alive. If you have a basic theory (say, all philosophers, or good conversationalists only) then please reveal it.

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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13 replies to this post
  1. 1) Solzhenitsyn
    2) Leonidas
    3) Augustine
    4) Alfred the Great
    5) George Washington
    6) Dali

    I expect Washington to perhaps be the quiet one. If he were too uncomfortable, it may do to replace him with, given the room, Sapho.

  2. There definitely needs to be a balance. If you invite all talkers, who will listen? Only contemplatives? Boooooring. This is fun. I want to make a list!!

    Great post, Mr. Masty! I laughed, I chucked, I sighed with a smile. Braaaavo.

  3. I'd like to have a conversation with Eve for starters 🙂

    Hmmmm, and then high on the list are two grandparents who died before I was born.

    Then Lydia, 1st century seller of purple.

    Finally a couple more gentlemen to balance the conversation ~ Larry McDonald and his favorite poet, Rudyard Kipling.

    Still pondering the menu tho'

  4. First, what is a dinner party FOR? For example, Jesus is at a couple of dinners in the NT, at one He does something that doesn't need to be done again (The Last Supper) and at the other he holds forth while Mary sits at his feet and Martha does all the work. Well, my wife is most certainly a Martha, and so I wouldn't want her sweating in the kitchen while got all the good conversation. Dinner parties are for good talk, good food, and good wine. The good talk eliminates about 99% of all the great people of history. Can you imagine Bishop Sheen deferring to, say, Cato the Elder? Or Paul to Cicero? Or Norman Vincent Peale to anyone? One of the best dinner companions I've ever had is M. Stanton Evans. He knows everybody and knows almost everything, but really likes to hear other people talk and genuinely wants to exchange good things with them. And he's funny. You can rule out most politicians, because they are running for something all the time. An exception here is the late Senator Gene McCarthy, who was entertaining without ego. Artists I have known either are silent or they posture. Same with most "writers." They brood or protrude. I've had a great time at dinner with certain athletes, but their conversation tends to follow the flight of the ball. Non-drinkers might shorten the evening (can you imagine a toast with Savonarola?).
    How about a group chosen for (at least perceived) good will and compatibility?
    1. Blessed John Paul II (he could talk about anything in several languages)
    2. Aristotle (at least he wouldn't use the socratic method)
    3. Thomas More (the Englishman of all Englishmen)
    4. David (and he would give us a little music)
    5. Machiavelli (he was always in taverns talking with locals)
    6. Benjamin Franklin (maybe two Machiavellis?)
    No girls on the list–not a misogynistic moment, but I just couldn't think of any who fit the list I got going. I would probably do a different list every day, by the way.

  5. I'm thinking Alice Roosevelt should come to at least a few of my dinner parties.

    Y'all remember her, dont ya?

    The lady who said

    If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.

  6. I am delighted with these responses, in so many ways: a purveyor of purple! blind Borges! Mother Eve (keep the apples in the kitchen)! an old Navy buddy reminding us that great people need not be notorious! Only Dali gives me pause: I may have to ring for a cab before the fish course. And if we had a Loyal Toast, poor Edw. VII would have to, um, toast himself and that's rather un-English but he might take it in stride ("Chin-chin, chaps! Here's to me!")

    John's insistence on conviviality strengthens my own resolve to avoid a roomful of egoists, so greatness loses to those whom Dr Johnson calls "clubbable" (not in the sense of baby seals). So, until a different list occurs to me:

    1) Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire, the first autobiographer, a passable poet who liked a few drinks, with an inquisitive mind to rival Jefferson he'd ask lots of questions too;

    2) Chesterton, who was merry, witty and humble in company and out;

    3) Sir Frances Drake, lawn-bowling between courses, popular in court so he is socially adept, adds a touch of swashbuckle that is always so welcome at supper parties nowadays;

    4)Aristophanes, judging by the comedies;

    5)Max Beerbohm, socially the best-loved of his set or era (not conceited like Oscar, bumptious like Rudyard, or languid like Aubrey), well-educated but not obtrusively so, a fine wit and all-round man of letters who could grind out wicked caricatures through dinner, liked a few drinks…and then a few drinks;

    6)Blessed Pope JP2: warm, insightful, erudite and a literatus in his own right, who could inject spirituality while not casting a pall on the merriment.

    7) Stan Evans, conservative icon, on standby for cancellations. John is right: he is so wise, witty, warm, well-mannered and well-read (The Five Ws)that you could drop him into Johnson's circle at The Cheddar Cheese, bung him into a tavern with the Founders, slip him into the banquette at the Algonquin or probably an agora with classical playwrights and he'd fit right in. Socially and intellectually he may be the closest I've met to the Universal Solvent. May even bump Aristophanes.

    Out of my six: 3 religions, 3 cultures, 4 historical epochs, 3 languages, 5 writers, 2 men of action, all listeners and talkers, all witty, all like to down a modest snorterino. Nuts, no room left for Orville and Wilbur – sorry, Mister Speaker!

  7. It does seem that a woman should put together this guest list, unless of course, it will take place in a pub. Then, I think, the men are more spontaneously men. Don't you think? A woman’s guest list would have to include a couple of single people she thinks ought to meet, well, spontaneously. Or at least, make it appear so. Then you must have couples present who will encourage each other’s occupations and hobbies. It does not do to have Gertrude Stein and Mother Theresa at the same dinner table when you are trying to kindle a romance between two people who do not know each other. Most assuredly, the tension will be too high and diffuse any hopes of congenial light hearted conversation. Women are, by far, the reason for such unfortunate results at dinner parties. Pity such spiteful backstabbing snobs even exist. (I wasn’t thinking of Mother Theresa in the latter sentence:) But the hostess must be blamed if such a situation does occur.

    Anyhoo, let us invite couples who are different from one another, but not so different conversation is impossible. Similarities are precious antidotes to a “must attend” dinner party as long as, competition can be kept at bay. One should read Fr Dudley’s novel, Pageant of Life or was it Shadows of the Earth where a dinner party is taking place and one of the participants would fumble and appear plain awkward? Such circumstances are a nightmare for the hostess.

    After many years of hosting events at home and for different groups, I firmly believe the food is just a small part of a great evening. Serving a big pot of spaghetti vs beef tenderloin can be just as appetizing to the guests if a true warm welcome awaits them at the door and a level of comfort is carried throughout the evening.

    I hope to have a feast with Chesterton, JPll, Edith Stein, Augustine, and my mother one day, while being completely engulfed in the Beatific Vision. Now there’s a dinner party.

  8. Oh man, Oh man, Oh Man: Six, the number of man. With me, seven; and with my wife, eight. Very deep meaning to those numbers.

    * Plato (What did you mean?),
    * Dostoevsky (How did you see that?),
    * Kierkegaard (what were you thinking?!),
    * Shakespeare (How did you do that?!?),
    * William of Occam (why did you do that?),
    * and St. Athanasius (thank you).

    I'm hungry.

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