Positive Thinking on Pennsylvania Avenue

By Roth, Philip | Chicago Review, Summer-Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Positive Thinking on Pennsylvania Avenue


Roth, Philip, Chicago Review


Philip Roth's first publication outside of the Bucknell College literary magazine was a story called "The Day It Snowed"; it appeared in the Fall 1954 issue of Chicago Review. Roth later told Molly McQuade, "It's a story by someone who's twenty years old. That's all you can really say about it."(*) ROTH had more to say to us about this brief essay, which appeared in the Spring 1957 issue:

The Eisenhower piece was my second publication in the Chicago Review. My friend George Starbuck, the poet, was an editor at the review, and it was only natural to give the piece to George. I was 23, at the U. of C. as an instructor in the college and a part-time graduate student. A few weeks after the piece appeared, it was reprinted in the New Republic. That led to my doing movie and TV reviews on and off for the New Republic for the next couple of years.

... He [Congressman Walter Judd of Minnesota] told me this fascinating story about President Eisenhower. Mrs. Judd had been having a visit with Mrs. Eisenhower who told her, "Ike gets into bed, lies back on the pillow, and prays out loud, something like this: 'Lord, I want to thank You for helping me today. You really stuck by me. I know, Lord, that I muffed a few and I'm sorry about that. But both the ones we did all right and the ones we muffed I am turning them all over to You. You take over from here. Good night, Lord, I'm going to sleep.' And," added the President's wife to Mrs. Judd, "that is just what he does; he just turns over and goes to sleep...."

- Norman Vincent Peale, December 1956

The man of deep religious conscience and conviction traditionally speaks to his God with words of awe, love, fear, and wonder: he lifts his voice to the mysterious bigger-than-space, longer-than-time God, and his own finiteness, ignorance, and sinfulness grip his spirit and carve for his tongue a language of humility. Only recently Mrs. Eisenhower revealed to a White House guest the words the President himself speaks each night to the Lord from the quiet of his bed. As the President begins his second term in office, it would perhaps be fitting to examine the short prayer which has helped to carry him through these past few years, the prayer with which he attempts to crash through the barriers of flesh and finitude in his quest for communion with God.

To imagine the tone of voice with which the President delivers his prayers one need only read the closing sentences as Mrs. Eisenhower reports them. "You take over from here," the President says aloud. "Good night, Lord, I'm going to sleep." The President's tone is clear: if one were to substitute the word "James" for "Lord" one might hear the voice of a man calling not to his God, but to his valet. "I have polished my left shoe, James. As for the right, well - you take over from here. Good night, James, I'm going to sleep." The tone is a chummy one, as opposed, say, to the tone taken toward Cinderella by her despised stepsisters: "Sweep the floor, wash the clothes, polish the shoes, and then get the hell out of here...." The President addresses his valet as he does his God, as an equal. Where the theologian, Martin Buber, has suggested that man is related to his God as an "I" to a "Thou," Mr. Eisenhower's tone would seem to suggest that the I and Thou of Buber's thinking be converted into the more democratic You and Me.

"Lord," the President's prayer begins, "I want to thank You for helping me today. You really stuck by me...." The Lord is not so much his shepherd, Mr. Eisenhower indicates, as his helper, his aide-de-camp. He is a kind of celestial Secretary of State, and one who apparently knows his place in the chain of command; it is quite clearly stated, "You stuck by me" and not "I stuck by you." The prayer continues "I know, Lord, that I muffed a few and I'm sorry about that. But both the ones we did all right and the ones we muffed I am turning them all over to You." A slight ambiguity exists around the words "a few. …

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