Ted Widmer, a presidential scholar, history professor at Brown University, and former speechwriter for Bill Clinton, delivered an all-School lecture on Monday—Presidents’ Day—about the American presidency and how past presidents are perceived.
“Groton is a fitting place to remember the presidents,” Widmer told the audience in the Campbell Performing Arts Center (CPAC). “It would be difficult to find a school that has contributed more to the service of the executive branch of our country.”
Widmer went on to discuss President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Groton Form of 1900) and numerous public servants who attended Groton, including Francis Biddle, who served as attorney general under FDR; Dean Acheson, who was undersecretary of the Treasury under FDR and secretary of state under President Truman; and numerous senators, congressmen, FBI agents, presidential advisors, and other Grotonians.
Groton, especially “Groton’s culture of service to others,” shaped FDR profoundly, the speaker said. In fact, the 32nd president mentioned the Rev. Endicott Peabody, the School’s founder, in his fourth inaugural address, which Widmer said was highly unusual.
While President Theodore Roosevelt did not attend Groton (his four sons did), he was close friends with Peabody, who asked him to teach at Groton, according to Widmer. He declined, but did visit the School during his presidency.
Groton’s Presidents’ Day lecture began with a history lesson about the holiday itself, which stems from a George Washington birthday celebration originally designated for government employees. Congress deemed Washington’s birthday a national holiday in 1968, and in 1971 stipulated that the holiday be on the third Monday in February, between the 15th and the 21st. The irony of that law, said Widmer, is that the calendar constraints mean “we celebrate Washington’s birthday on a day that can never be Washington’s birthday.” George Washington was born on February 22.