Dr. Bell Meets the President

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In 1954, the American Philosophical Society and Yale University teamed up to establish the Papers of Benjamin Franklin program, a project to publish with scholarly annotations all of the papers of Franklin. By 1960, the first two volumes had been published. It was decided that, to acknowledge government support, the volumes should be presented to President Eisenhower. Whitfield Jenks Bell, Jr., Associate Editor of the Papers, was in the delegation sent to the White House. Bell left an account of the trip of May 26, 1960.

Bell passed through three layers of security and, after waiting a bit, was shown in to the President. “As we entered,” Bell wrote,

DDE sprang from his chair, strode to the front of his desk, shook each of us by the hand, looking deeply in the eyes. He is a tall man, with a tendency, when addressing someone, to lower his head and peer directly at you.

One of the delegation, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Roy Franklin Nichols, was from the University of Pennsylvania.  Eisenhower asked, “Do you know Ravdin? He cut me up.” Isadore Ravdin, a highly skilled surgeon, administrator, and Major General in the Medical Corps, had operated on Eisenhower for ileitis in 1956 and was Eisenhower’s friend.

Franklin Papers V.2
Benjamin Franklin Papers, Volume 2.

Nichols presented the volumes to Eisenhower who said, “‘Well, isn’t that nice,’ . . . as though it were a complete surprise.” The President noted he liked to read the letters of Lincoln and those of Washington and thought that including both the material written by Franklin and that written to him, as done in the Franklin project, was a good idea.

Bell noted more of his impression of Eisenhower:

The President is 69, but he looks 15 years younger. His face is ruddy, his figure hard and trim, his eyes sparkle, and his grin as broad and easy as ever.  He moves in great strides and throws himself out of his chair or back into it with great force. His speech is peppered with Hell, Damn, and God-damn, but not offensively. He is completely relaxed, kept the ball of conversation going easily and acted as though he hadn’t a care in the world but to please us.

Franklin Papers editor Leonard LaBaree read a passage from Franklin, a letter in which he hopes that “liberty might one day envelope the world, so that a philosopher might walk anywhere and say ‘this is my country.’” Eisenhower replied, “’My, isn’t that a thoughtful message.’”

Eisenhower Franklin Presentation
Eisenhower Franklin Presentation, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Yale University. From left to right: Walter M. Whitehill, The Boston Athenaeum, member of the Administrative Board; Roy F. Nichols, Dean, Graduate School, University of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Administrative Board; Leonard W. Labaree, Editor, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin; Chester Kerr, Director of the Yale University Press, secretary of the Administrative Board; President Eisenhower

This being the White House, pictures had to be taken, so 20 photographers were let in, “poured in” according to Bell, “like the Marx Brothers getting out of a car or a pack of dogs from their kennel.”

The first five dropped to their knees at some invisible line in front of the President’s desk; the others took places behind them; someone held up a spotlight; and they began snapping and grinding away, the President and Nichols chatting and holding the book. Then, after 30 – not more than 60 seconds of this—a woman who had come in with them, said quietly, ‘That’ll be all;’ – and they ran out of the room as suddenly and completely as they had come in.

Bell and the others shook hands with the President and left, seeing on the way out

several dozen people, all staring at us and wondering who we were and what business we had with the President. I stared right back, wondering who they were, and what business they had bothering the President.

Whitfield Bell was hired by the APS and became Associate Librarian in July 1960.  Promoted to Librarian in 1965, he is the only person ever to have been both Librarian and (later in his tenure) Executive Officer. The Franklin Papers project is still going today, the 43rd volume scheduled to come out this year.

The complete text of Bell’s account is available in the APS digital library.

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