Whitehouse Briefings for Linguists

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Mark's post about linguistic celebrities reminds me of a conversation I had quite some years ago with David Perlmutter, whom linguists will know for his work on syntax and sign language. We asked each other who was the most famous person we had met. After running through candidates well known in academia but perhaps less so in the wider world, such as Noam Chomsky, chemist Konrad Bloch, and neurologist Norman Geschwind, I guessed that the most famous person I had met was Senator Patrick Leahy, who was our district attorney before he ran for the Senate and was the speaker at my high school graduation. David's answer was President Eisenhower. When I asked him how he had met President Eisenhower, he told me the following story.

In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, the United States put on an exposition in Moscow. This was a display of American products, intended to impress the Soviet Union with how much better life was in the US. This was the scene of the famous Kitchen Debate between then Vice-President Richard Nixon and Premier Nikita Khruschev. They needed guides to explain things and answer questions, and they needed them to speak Russian. This being considered an important mission, they didn't want just anybody who could speak Russian, so they went to Harvard and looked for some Russian-speaking Harvard students. They found David (who actually majored in Psychology and Social Relations and wasn't yet, strictly speaking, a linguist), Jim Matisoff, and Dan Slobin. Before they left for Moscow, the three of them were taken to the White House for a briefing by the President.


  1. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

    David was a classmate of mine. I never met Dwight Eisenhower, but in 1958 I interviewed Richard Nixon in, of all places, the Green Bay Packer dressing room.

  2. Catanea said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    Aw, c'mon…doesn't the anecdote go any further?

  3. Bill Poser said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

    "Aw, c'mon…doesn't the anecdote go any further?"

    Well, I don't recall them being asked to undertake any clandestine missions or anything like that. David was not present at the Kitchen Debate.

  4. mollymooly said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 6:28 pm

    Catanea was talking to Ralph…

  5. Claire said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 9:16 pm

    I don't know why mollymooly assumes Catanea was talking to Ralph. What am I missing? I would generally assume a comment is directed at the poster, unless the comment is explicitly directed at another commenter.

  6. Bill Poser said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

    "Catanea was talking to Ralph…"

    Ah, you see, I'm a phonetician and phonologist, not a discourse specialist, so I don't always get those things right…

    Actually, I assume that three young guys on the loose in Moscow would have sampled the caviar and sturgeon, imbibed some vodka, smoked some Cuban cigars, and dallied with some nice young Russian ladies, but if they did, they aren't talking.

  7. Andrew Rodland said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

    That article really was the perfect setup. Makes you go "and then…?" I read it, cursed my feedreader for only giving me the "before the cut," clicked through to the article page, scanned it again… and realized there was no "after the cut." Tease. ;)

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