Our readers' opinions on Princeton's most influential alumni

A sampling of the Princetonians who readers felt deserved to be on the top-25 list: from left, Syngman Rhee *1910, Jim Lebenthal '49, Eugene O'Neill 1910, Cornel West '80
A sampling of the Princetonians who readers felt deserved to be on the top-25 list: from left, Syngman Rhee *1910, Jim Lebenthal '49, Eugene O'Neill 1910, Cornel West '80
Photos: AP Images (Rhee *1910, O’Neill 1910); Mat Szwajkos/Getty Images (Lebenthal ’49), Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications (West *80)

Our Jan. 23 issue presented a list of the University’s most influential alumni, as chosen by a faculty and alumni panel. We posted on our Web site a list of approximately 250 alumni who have been recognized for their professional accomplishments — a list we prepared to help jump-start our panel’s discussions. But recognizing the inevitable subjectivity of trying to winnow 120,000 Princeton alumni over 261 years down to the “top 25,” we invited you, our readers, to tell us who was overlooked. 

Judging from the dozens of letters and e-mails we received about the list, it seems that readers felt our panel got the list pretty much right. There were cavils and quibbles about this ranking or that exclusion, but no broad groundswell of opinion that the panel left off anyone in particular or included anyone who did not deserve the honor. Naturally, though, there were some exceptions.

One might have thought that James Madison 1771 would have been an unassailable choice for Princeton’s most influential alumnus, and for the most part his selection was not criticized. But there were dissenters. Norman Cliff *57 argued that “a more balanced description of [Madison’s] career would have mentioned [that] in the recent spate of nominations for the most disastrous president, he heads the list of many historians.” Cliff reminded us that the father of the Constitution was a less-than-stellar chief executive, who bumbled his way into a war with Great Britain and had to flee the White House before the British burned it.

In an e-mail from St. Catherine’s, Ontario, where he is a professor of history at Brock University, Garth Stevenson *71 wrote magnanimously that “although President Madison, in my Canadian opinion, bears some of the blame for the War of 1812, I am prepared to forgive him for that since he was the inventor of modern federalism.” Stevenson did, however, plump for the inclusion of Syngman Rhee *1910, who was the first president of South Korea (from 1948 to 1960) and “deserves credit for founding a state which is now one of the most stable and successful democracies in all of Asia, and for guiding it through a war which threatened its very existence.”

Princeton’s beloved Woodrow Wilson 1879 had his critics, too. Jon Perlow ’98 was not happy that Wilson was ranked as our third-most-influential alumnus, noting on his blog, Jon’s Political Ramblings (www.jonspoliticalramblings. blogspot.org) that Wilson’s advocacy of a progressive income tax and central banking system “achieved two of the 10 planks of the Communist Manifesto.” Charles Parmele III ’47 also questioned the high ranking given to the “pragmatic and autocratic” Wilson, whom he scorned as “a real meddler who would not take advice.” Wilson’s reputation, Parmele argued, was sullied by his military interventions in Mexico and Latin America and his refusal to make compromises with congressional Republicans over the Paris peace treaty, which might have led to American membership in the League of Nations. Moving down the list, Parmele also objected to George Kennan ’25 (No. 6), saying that Kennan was “totally wrong in regard to the Soviet Union.”

If Parmele thought that Kennan was wrong with regard to the Soviet Union, Carl Shaifer ’53 wrote that former secretary of state John Foster Dulles 1908 (No. 10) was wrong with regard to Iran, specifically a coup the United States helped to engineer in 1953 that restored the shah to the Peacock Throne. The shah’s repressive regime eventually was overthrown in 1979, and the Islamic theocracy that succeeded it remains a foreign-policy headache for the United States to this day. Shaifer “saw red” when he read the reference to the coup. “While I do not deny [Dulles’] inclusion as ‘one of the 25 most influential Princetonians,’ I would classify his influence as one for evil, not for good.”

The loudest objections were reserved for former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld ’54, who rounded out the list at No. 25, sharing the spot with Ralph Nader ’55. Rumsfeld’s classmate, Mord Bogie ’54, observed, “By not opposing the invasion or publicly acknowledging that it was unnecessary ... Rumsfeld bears as much responsibility for the Iraq war and its consequences as James Madison does for the Constitution and its consequences.” Henri Bailey *60 took
a more direct tack: “[W]hat a travesty!” A small handful of
readers wrote that they appreciated Rumsfeld’s inclusion. One of these was Frederick W. Fraley III ’54, who noted that Rumsfeld was one of only a few conservatives on the list. “Alumni who greatly influenced their place and time but whose contributions are not deemed liberal are overlooked,” Fraley wrote.
To replace Rumsfeld in the top 25, a few readers offered James A.  Baker III ’52. As Houghton Hutcheson ’68 pointed out, Baker served as White House chief of staff and treasury secretary under Ronald Reagan and secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, and was a key Republican adviser in the 1980, 1984, and 1988 presidential campaigns. He also coordinated George W. Bush’s legal team in Florida following the disputed 2000 presidential election. “Therefore,” Hutcheson argued, “it can be said that Jim Baker had a direct hand in sending to the presidency three men who would go on to hold that office for 20 of the past 28 years.” Similar sentiments were expressed by David Paton ’52, who added, “What a shame that [Baker’s] integrity, commitment, and ability were not perceived as highly influential as were the aggressions and flamboyance of others listed in your selection of the top 25.”

Try as we did to make our lists exhaustive, however, we surely overlooked some candidates. (Names of influential alumni who were omitted from the long list are being appended at http://www.princeton.edu/paw/web_exclusives/ plus/plus_012308full_list.html). Former New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne ’49 sent us a short but emphatic e-mail advocating for a classmate: “How could you have left out Jim Lebenthal ’49, who changed the way the world views municipal bonds?” he asked. “Who could be more important?” Indeed, Lebenthal was not on our list of 250 influential Princetonians. After starting his career as a Hollywood correspondent for Life magazine and an animator for Walt Disney (he received an Academy Award nomination in 1958 for best short feature), Lebenthal became a bond salesman with his family’s firm, crusaded to preserve the federal tax exemption for municipal bonds, and has advocated the importance of those bonds on many stages. In a follow-up phone interview, Byrne, who certainly knows something about the subject, elaborated. “The sale of municipal bonds is a key aspect of public finance,” he said. “You never even thought about municipal bonds before Jim Lebenthal. He was a very imaginative guy.”

Thoralf Sundt III ’79, a surgeon, asked why we did not include John Gibbon ’23, the inventor of the heart-lung machine, an essential component of cardiac bypass surgery. In the 1930s, Gibbon developed the first machine to take over the function of the heart and lungs temporarily, making more invasive surgery possible. After four years of work, he succeeded in inventing a machine that kept a cat alive for 26 minutes; by the early 1950s, using another device that improved the oxygenation of blood, Gibbon was able to keep dogs alive for more than an hour during heart surgery.  In 1953, Gibbon performed the first successful operation on a human using a heart-lung bypass machine. “Today hundreds of thousands of individuals are alive, thanks to the life-saving open-heart cardiac surgery which Gibbon’s machine made possible,” Sundt wrote.
 

More Princetonians who readers felt deserved to be on the top 25 list: Aaron Burr 1771, Andrea Jung '79, Hobey Baker '14 and James A Baker III '52.
More Princetonians who readers felt deserved to be on the top 25 list: Aaron Burr 1771, Andrea Jung '79, Hobey Baker '14 and James A Baker III '52.
Photos: AP Images (Burr 1771, Jung ’79, Baker '52); Princeton University Archives (Baker ’14)

Playwright Eugene O’Neill 1910, who attended Princeton for about a year before being asked to leave, was missing, too. (Our panelists had been told that alumni who spent only a brief time on campus were ineligible.) Ted Taubeneck ’48 objected strongly: “He had much more influence on modern ‘arts and letters’ than Fitzgerald or Wilder,” wrote Taubeneck. “Dysfunctional families are still all the rage.” Others whose names were submitted by readers because the names did not appear on the long list — and possibly should have — are Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky ’38, a physicist and proponent of disarmament; physician, scientist, and poet Lewis Thomas ’33; Paul Pressler ’53, who helped return the Southern Baptist Convention to its conservative roots; G. Mennen Williams ’33, a six-term governor of Michigan and state Supreme Court justice; Russell Train ’41, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and former college presidents Neil Rudenstine ’56 of Harvard, Howard Swearer ’54 of Brown, and John Kemeny ’46 *49 of Dartmouth, who also co-wrote the BASIC programming language and pioneered “accessible computing.”

Though few alumni received more than one vote for the top 25, the votes were impassioned. “Shame on Princeton’s blue-ribbon panel of historians and philosophers,” John B. Moses ’42 scolded. “They omitted Aaron Burr, Class of 1772.”  Moses made a strong case for Burr’s inclusion in the top 25, noting his outstanding college record, distinguished military service during the Revolution, advocacy of women’s rights (“he was about the only man in the public eye of his time to declare that women had souls and that they should be educated up to their potential”), and instrumental role as a New York political leader and in establishing what became the Democratic Party (not to mention serving as vice president of the United States from 1801 to 1805). Of course, Burr also killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and was tried for treason in 1807 on charges that he had plotted to lead a revolt against the United States and establish an independent country, with himself as ruler, in the Western territories  (he was acquitted). From David T. Fisher ’69 came the name of one of Burr’s relative contemporaries: Fisher’s ancestor Nathaniel Scudder 1751. Scudder, Fisher reminded us, was a physician, Princeton trustee, military officer, member of the Continental Congress, and a New Jersey signer of the Articles of Confederation — “without which there might not have been a United States of America.”

Our panel thought for a long time before leaving Edmund Wilson ’16 off the top-25 list, but John M. Scott ’47 believed he deserved inclusion. Wilson, Scott noted, was “the most eminent man of letters in America in the 20th century. ... [H]e made serious literature, and especially modern literature, accessible to the educated reader.” In addition to his literary criticism, Wilson wrote influential histories of socialism (To the Finland Station), Symbolism (Axel’s Castle), and the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as more than a dozen other books. Our panelists considered all these achievements, but to their regret there were only 25 slots to fill. To this, Scott had a solution: “dropping the name of Donald Rumsfeld.” Ed Chambliss ’71 thought that James Forrestal ’15, secretary of the Navy during World War II and the country’s first secretary of defense during the early days of the Cold War, should have been listed. “How many Americans who came after him — including the younger among PAW’s favored 25 — would have been able to live the lives they wanted, if Forrestal and a handful of his colleagues had failed?”

Ben Primer, the associate University librarian for Rare Books and Special Collections, wrote to suggest that Hamilton Fish Armstrong ’16 deserved a spot in the top 25. Armstrong was an editor and one of the guiding lights of Foreign Affairs magazine for half a century, during which time the journal published influential articles by alumni Kennan, Dulles, and Nicholas Katzenbach ’43 (No. 16 on the panel’s list). Armstrong also was a longtime director of the Council on Foreign Relations and served in the American delegation to the San Francisco Conference in 1945 at which the United Nations was created. Adlai Stevenson ’22 had a fan in Susan Hunt Hollingsworth ’80, who said, “Surely there is room on the list for [a man who served as] governor of Illinois, two-time Democratic candidate for president, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and a most distinguished and eloquent statesman, one who captured the imagination of a generation of young liberal Americans.” Still other readers suggested that spots on the top-25 list should have gone to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg *57; Librarian of Congress James H. Billington ’50; former Canadian foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy *72, an advocate for a ban on land mines; former senator and Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley ’65; Andrea Jung ’79, president and CEO of Avon Products Inc.; Princeton professor Cornel West *80; John Doar ’44, assistant attorney general from 1965 until 1967; and William D. Ruckelshaus ’55, first head of the EPA and holder of other important government positions.   

Although our issue contained a list by Jim Merritt ’66 of 12 alumni who shaped Princeton, a few people argued that some particularly Princeton luminaries also deserved inclusion among the top 25 — like Hobey Baker ’14, an athletic icon whom F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 once called “an ideal worth everything in my enthusiastic imagination,” and “Freddy” Fox ’39, longtime University recording secretary and keeper of Princetoniana who also taught generations of freshmen the words to “Old Nassau.” Gregg Lange ’70, PAW’s online columnist, wrote in to recognize former Princeton basketball stars — “partly as a tribute to Pete Carril” — John Rogers ’80, this year’s recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Award, and John Thompson III ’88, head coach at Georgetown.

PAW’s list received some notice in the blogosphere, partly because of the influential — or not — alumni who toil there. On his popular political site RealClearPolitics (www.realclearpolitics.com), Tom Bevan ’91 noted: “It may come as a bit of a shock to some that co-founding RealClearPolitics appeared not to carry as much weight with the judges as, say, writing The Great Gatsby or being elected president.” And on the education-oriented Core Knowledge blog at http://www.coreknowledge.org/blog/author/robert-pondiscio, there was this comment from Robert Pondiscio, who took issue with what he saw as the too-low rankings of several alumni who were included among the panel’s top 25: “Shed no tears for any of them,” he said. “Save your sympathy for eBay boss Meg Whitman [’77]. She gave Princeton $30 million to build a new residential house ... and didn’t even make the list.”