Book Review: George William Rutler, Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (Scepter, 2010)

Ambassador Vernon A. Walters, a US diplomat, general, and senior intelligence official, was one of the many individuals, now deceased, from whom some passing influence, some remark or circumstance, was personal enough, says George Rutler, to have made him something that he would not have been without them.

In greatcharlie.com’s book review of Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), it was discussed that during his career at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Gates likely came in contact with officers with whom dozens of stories of ingenuity, courage, sacrifice, and patriotism are coupled.  It was also noted that as Gates reached the senior ranks of the organization, especially the job of Deputy Director of CIA, his work at headquarters was supplemented by travels worldwide, to establish or ensure understandings and agreements the Agency had with foreign personalities.  Contacts with both renowned figures from the Agency and a multitude of others helped Gates develop a greater understanding of the world and other ways of thinking. We are shaped by those around us. In part as result of those contacts Gates’ counsel was remarkable and highly valued among senior foreign and defense policy officials and presidents.

In his book, Cloud of Witnesses: Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (Scepter, 2010), George William Rutler provides very intriguing stories of sixty-six individuals, all of whom have passed, who have influenced his life.   Rutler, a Catholic priest, explains that he did not intend to write biographies of these individuals. He admits that others could undoubtedly say much more about them. However, by writing vignettes, Rutler wanted to make the point that some passing influence, some remark or circumstance, was personal enough to make him something that he would not have been without them. It is quite obvious that Cloud of Witnesses is not a book on foreign and defense policy, and greatcharlie.com readers might question why it is being reviewed. However, as his book looks at the characteristics of individuals, some from the foreign and defense policy arena, to understand how they managed to influence him, Rutler’s work falls within greatcharlie.com’s objective of shedding light on players in international affairs and their ideas that have ignited events from the inside.

Reared in the Episcopal tradition in New Jersey and New York, Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years, and the youngest Episcopal rector in the country when he headed the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. However, in 1979, he was received into the Catholic Church and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. A graduate of Dartmouth, Rutler also took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1988 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Thomas More College and Christendom College awarded him honorary doctorates. For ten years he was also National Chaplain of Legatus, the organization of Catholic business leaders and their families, engaged in spiritual formation and evangelization. A board member of several schools and colleges, he is Chaplain of the New York Guild of Catholic Lawyers, Regional Spiritual Director of the Legion of Mary (New York and northern New Jersey) and has long been associated with the Missionaries of Charity, and other religious orders. He was a university chaplain for the Archdiocese. Rutler has lectured and given retreats in many nations, frequently in Ireland and Australia. Since 1988, his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Rutler has made documentary films in the US and England, contributes to numerous scholarly and popular journals and has published 16 books on theology, history, cultural issues, and the lives of the saints.

Being an outstanding scholar and theologian, Rutler’s counsel was highly valued among prominent individuals worldwide. Many of those prominent individuals are discussed by Rutler in Cloud of Witnesses. However, Rutler does not place any emphasis on their power and influence in their societies. By focusing on their power and influence, one would miss the point of Rutler’s book which is to discuss their pertinence to his development.   Emphasis also should not be overly placed on the fact that Rutler is a Catholic priest. Indeed, it would be mistake for a potential reader to view his book merely as a religious work. True, Rutler on occasion brings theology into his discussion, mentions God, and goes as far as to state about the individuals he discusses, “God in different ways blessed them. I have written about characters I have known and who impressed me because God in different way impressed them.” Yet, In Cloud of Witnesses, Rutler also goes further.   He also seems to examine them based on what Aristotle would refer to as their ethos (an honest use of talent), logos (an honest use of mind), and pathos (an honest involvement in the suffering of the world). Rutler does not engage in an exercise in flattery or criticism. He is forth-right about each individual. He looks introspectively at, and is appropriately candid, about his own past judgments and situations in which he might have learned more or could have acted differently.

Those individuals discussed in the sixty-six vignettes presented by Rutler in Cloud of Witnesses that had been engaged in foreign and defense policy or had served in the military were truly extraordinary people. Among them were Vernon A. Walters, James Charles Risk, and George Charles Lang, whose backgrounds alone are incredibly interesting. Rutler notes that Vernon A. Walters had served as an aide for seven US presidents, helped to shape the Marshall Plan, and served as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, served as a member of the NATO Standing Committee, and as US Ambassador to the UN and Federal Republic of Germany. He describes Walters as a tee totaling, nonsmoking, chaste, bachelor, which made him appear as an ascetic James Bond with the added advantage of being real. Walters certainly appeared to love the drama of it all. As an aide to General Mark Clark in World War II, he entered Rome on June 4, 1944, giving King Hassan of Morocco a ride on his tank. He alone filmed Truman’s meeting with General Douglas MacArthur on Wake Island in October 15, 1950, and took only notes when US President Harry Truman fired the general. Among his silent missions included a visit to see Cuban leader Fidel Castro and smuggling Kissinger into Paris for the peace talks on Vietnam. Kissinger remained incognito in Neuilly. On one occasion, Walters brought Kissinger in to France from Frankfurt, West Germany under the pretext that he was the mistress of French President Georges Pompidou. When Rutler asked former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger about Walters’s diplomacy, he labeled it as “flamboyant discretion.” Rutler, himself, found Walters to be an individual with bravery and integrity who conjured a brand of diplomacy that fooled many who thought his honesty was a clever deceit.

Other diplomats included, James Charles Risk, who Rutler described as an individual whose knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, protocol and ritual was not for amusement, but for purpose. Risk served in anti-submarine and convoy escort duty in the US Navy in the North Atlantic during World War II, and participated in the invasion of Sicily. However, in what Rutler refers to as an eccentric case of the Navy not wasting a man’s talents, he was ordered to write the administrative history of Mediterranean Naval Operations and then served on the Allied Commission on the Democratization of Italy. A protocol officer between the Vatican and the Quirinal Palace, he had frequent contacts with Pope Pius XII. He was present when the Communists destroyed ballots outside the Italian Ministry of Interior after a referendum on the monarchy, deducing that the US had allowed Interior Minister to fix the vote in favor of a republic. In addition to embracing formalities, Risk had a gift for establishing friendships and a love for intrigue. He would annually visit the deposed monarch, King Umberto, in Cascais, Portugal. Risk also befriended the Duke of Wellington. And often stayed with him at Stratfield Saye, England and attended the Garter Service at Windsor in a front row seat. Risk spent eleven days on the Trans-Siberian Express to a posting in Vladivostok, Russia as vice consul. He told Rutler of his experiences as a vice consul in Vietnam. They included going on a hunting trip with Emperor Bao Dai, who after holding a sumptuous banquet under a tent in the jungle, stood a relied himself before all the foreign dignitaries and their wives.

George Charles Lang was a Medal of Honor recipient. Having just become a squad leader, and rightfully deserving leave, Lang was leading his men in an engagement against enemy bunkers in the Kien Hoa Province in Vietnam on Washington’s Birthday in 1969. Having destroyed two bunker complexes single-handedly, with grenades and rifle fire, Lang attempted to cross a canal to within a few feet of the enemy. His troops suffered six casualties from rocket and automatic weapons fire from a third bunker. One rocket severed his spinal cord, but he continued to shout maneuvers in blinding pain. Two years later, Lang was decorated with the Medal of Honor by US President Richard Nixon. Rutler met this courageous individual away from combat and was impressed by his indomitable spirit. Lang produced a two volume set on Medal of Honor recipients which he painstakingly dictated. He promoted the cause for sainthood for US Marine chaplain Father Vincent Capodanno, who was killed in action giving last rites and had also received the Medal of Honor. Moreover, Lang displayed courage in peace, seeking peace within and winning the inner struggle of faith.

Of those mentioned who were not foreign and defense policy field were authors, royalty, philanthropist, scholars, theologians, and religious leaders. Here are snap-shots of a handful of those presented. Among the authors, Rutler discusses William F. Buckley, Jr. What Rutler appreciated most in Buckley was his effort to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil. Rutler notes that Buckley engaged in that struggle with a tongue that was the pen of a ready writer and he was unusual among in that he both spoke and wrote well, writing over 50 books and 6,000 columns, plus filming 1,500 episodes of Firing Line. He often offered material help to those with problems from shaky mortgages to taxes and tuition.

Rutler encountered Robert Frost as an undergraduate at Dartmouth. Frost, as Rutler states, did not “warm my New England winters for there was a cold battle going on in him between a benevolent and even elegant God and the God of arbitrary anger and unmerited predestinations.” Rutler does not believe he was an atheist as often stated by others. Rutler perceives Frost’s grandfatherly benignity as “a calculus of charity in the face of all these deep questions about God that had no resolution ion the flinty recesses of as Yankee mind.”

Richmond Lattimore attended church in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, where Rutler was the pastor. Lattimore was a scholarly model for Rutler long before they met. Lattimore, known as Dick, kept himself, as Rutler explains, immersed in ancient Greek studies. While in the US Navy during World War II, he wrote Sappho and Cattulus, and translated Homer, Aeschylus, and Virgil for his book War and the Poet. After his monumental translations of the Odyssey and the Iliad, Lattimore as Rutler puts it “Englished” the Four Gospels, the Book of Acts and Epistles, and the Revelation. While in the hospital recovering from surgery, Rutler quotes him as saying that his doubts about the Faith had disappeared somewhere in Saint Luke.

Among the royals, Rutler described Elizabeth Windsor as an Edwardian lady, who had been called the most dangerous woman in Europe by Hitler and flushed quiet approbation over the postwar sunset of the British Empire. However, he notes that she never made a public speech until her 100th birthday. As a respite from the lifelong treadmill of public events in crinolines and ostrich feathers, always smiling through migraines and aching feet, she would spend “Cold Highland hours in trout streams.” Rutler valued his occasional discussions with her over tea, or gin and sherry.

Rutler met with John Paul II (now St. John Paul II), many times during his seminary studies in Rome. He states that only after a year of meeting the pope on a visit, his parents converted. Rutler explained that he did appreciate his poetry or drama, and supposed what sounded turgid was lost in translation, as is almost the inevitable way with verse. It was tempting to neglect his paradoxes as romantic flights, too. Yet, Rutler concedes, in the reflected light of those Roman years, those of us who heard him were like the man on the Emmaus road, wander why he did not notice the sunset when all the while he was squinting at a sunrise.

Rutler first met Blessed Mother Teresa in 1980 when he was studying in Rome. In conversation with her, she always gave the impression that she has all the time in the world and the one she was speaking with was the only one in the world. Rutler recounted that once he arrived at the ancient church of St. Gregory with his cassock disheveled having been chased by a dog over a wall. Yet, Mother Teresa gave the impression upon seeing him that it was the normal way to prepare for Mass. However, Rutler also indicates there was nothing humbug about her, and she could give orders much as a US Marine sergeant and her counsel was pointed, but not piercing.

Rutler explains that his friend Avery Cardinal Dulles was from a family that claimed a Civil War general, two secretaries of state, including his father John Foster Dulles, and an uncle, Allen Dulles, who was the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. He decision to become a Jesuit priest confused his Presbyterian family. Perhaps his greatest impression on Rutler was not his conversion, but his authoring of 23 books and 800 tracts that exercised the critical faculties of disparate theological camps. He encouraged Rutler’s writing, inspiring a book on the history of many hymns. Rutler described him as follows, While his physical architecture was likened to Lincoln, the man was discerned in the details: from his conversion to the Faith when noticing the first spring blossom on a tree, to his intimate regard for all the ranks of people, never wasting on professional dialectic time that could be better spent discussing cookies with a rectory cook.

Rutler writes that Jean-Marie Lustiger, as a convert from Judaism, seemingly made him an unlikely Archbishop of Paris. His life in the clergy was rattled by lesser men on every side for whom he was not enough of this or that. Rutler knew Lustiger from his visits to New York, and noticed, on those occasions, an eloquent sadness in Lustiger that was “too ancient for any one race to claim.” His parents sent to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, he was protected by a Protestant family in Orleans with whom in he converted to Christianity.  Rutler states that when speaking at a 1999 public remembrance of deported and dead French Jews, including his mother, Lustiger spoke with a voice as old as Exodus and as old as the first day outside Eden.” He knew the heights depths of man, as well as the deadly shallows, and spoke of modern superficiality as the sentimental seed of dire cruelties.

Reviews of Rutler’s previous books consistently express the view that Rutler is a great writer and uses language beautifully. One reviewer once stated Rutler’s command of the English language was unequaled and a lesson in writing as an art form. He again demonstrates his extraordinary expertise as a writer in Cloud of Witnesses. /he is brilliant from start to finish. The book is an absolute pleasure to read.

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is an independent, non-profit organization that advances the understanding of diplomacy and supports the training of foreign affairs personnel through a variety of programs and activities. As part of its Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, it has prepared thousands of transcripts of interview recorded with US Foreign Service veterans. These oral histories present the realities of diplomacy to include thought provoking, sometimes absurd, and often horrifying stories from which valuable lessons can be drawn.   ADST’s efforts have been very successful and Rutler in many ways mirrored that success with Cloud of Witnesses. Rutler’s vignettes may not be biographies, but they are nonetheless histories. They tell the history of the individuals, warts and all, as they relate to Rutler and the history of Rutler, himself.

Perhaps by allowing moments of calm and peace, Rutler gave himself a chance to reflect on his life and find what was really inside himself. After reading his sixty-six vignettes, readers might find encouragement to take inventory. They might consider who it was that influenced them. As for younger readers, reading Cloud of Witnesses will hopefully lead them to think more deeply about themselves and others they encounter.

Cloud of Witnesses would unlikely have been included on the summer reading lists of greatcharlie.com readers before the posting of this book review. However, it is hoped that after reading this review, the title will be added to everyone’s list. This book will be difficult to put down. It is a book that readers will think about when unable to continue reading it. Presumably, for most greatcharlie.com’s readers, reading books on foreign and defense policy is de rigueur. Cloud of Witnesses will be a much deserved respite, but at the same time it will intrigue and will have value to those interested in foreign and defense policy. There is nothing disappointing about the book. Without reservations, greatcharlie.com recommends Cloud of Witnesses to its readers.

By Mark Edmond Clark

 

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