George Washington, the father of his country and first president of the United States, considered good manners so important that he wrote a book titled “Rules of Civility” when he was just a teenager.
“Some of these rules have evolved and are still applicable, and some aren’t,” Dianne Isbell, etiquette columnist for the Belleville News-Democrat, said at the Lewis & Clark Chapter of the Illinois Society of Sons of the American Revolution’s 18th annual Presidents Day dinner at the Hop House in O’Fallon.
“Washington wrote, ‘Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.’ I would say that is still applicable today,” Isbell told the SAR members and guests.
Even other holders of the highest office in the land have occasionally had difficulty living up to that standard, sometimes through no fault of their own and sometimes otherwise, Isbell continued. Calvin Coolidge, for instance, once pulled a trick on some men who came to the Oval Office for a meeting. When the maid served coffee, Cautious Cal put his saucer on the floor and filled it. His guests did the same.
“The President then said, ‘Here, kitty!’ and the cat came in and drank from the saucer on the floor. These gentlemen didn’t know what to do, so they followed the most important person, and they were totally embarrassed.”
On the other hand, guests must sometimes follow what they know to be improper behavior to keep from embarrassing their host or hostess, Isbell advised.
Harry Truman was once the victim of his Democratic campaign committee when the members decided to release 12 dozen doves in the convention hall, Isbell said.
“It was so hot and humid that the doves couldn’t get out. Some of them died and others went out of their minds and started dive-bombing the delegates.”
Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama learned the hard way that careless words usually come back to haunt those who speak them, Isbell said. She recalled that Johnson was overly descriptive when he told an aide how he wanted a pair of pants to fit. The conversation was recorded and found its way into the press, which did nothing to help the president’s public relations.
When Carter was asked what he thought about Playboy magazine, he answered that he had looked on a lot of women with lust and committed adultery in his heart many times, but hoped that God would forgive him, Isbell reminded her listeners.
“Of all the wonderful things that he did, what do people remember the most? His comment about the ladies in Playboy.”
Clinton’s most famous quote is still, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” Isbell said, and Obama erred by stating that the first automobile was made in America.
“In fact, Benz is known to have made the first car. We have to be careful about what we say, no matter where we are. We have to watch what we say on Facebook, because all those things can be retrieved. There is nothing that can be erased on computers that can’t be found.”
Washington advised his readers not to talk with food in their mouths, and good table manners are still critical, especially in the company of a potential employer, Isbell noted.
“Corporations today want employees who will represent them well in public. If you don’t have good table manners, you can make or break your interview right at the time you are having lunch.”
George H.W. Bush once had the misfortune to fall ill at a state dinner and regurgitate his meal on the lap of the prime minister of Japan — all on national television, Isbell said, adding that Bush’s son created a stir when he was in a meeting and rubbed the shoulders of Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel.
Isbell concluded that the younger George W. would have done well to heed this rule from his predecessor George W.’s book: “In speaking to men of quality, do not lean or look them full in the face, nor approach too near. At least, keep a full pace from them.”
The Sons of the American Revolution is a national organization with state societies and local chapters. Its purposes are patriotic, historical and educational. For details, visit www.sar.org.
Counties served by the Lewis & Clark Chapter are St. Clair, Monroe, Randolph, Washington, Clinton and Jefferson. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone Bob Blanchard at 618-233-5884 for information.