- - Thursday, June 4, 2015

I had known Robert “Robby” George for years now. It was the fall of 1999. I had invited him to lunch. I wanted to ask his opinion as to whether I should devote some energy to help a few Princeton faculty to develop a project in medieval history. Never before had I talked to Robby about my own interests and projects. This lunch was about to change the course of my life.

It would be at that lunch in November, 1999 at the “Rusty Scupper”—a restaurant that since has closed down—that Robby “popped” the question. Since he saw me restless and full of energy—I suppose—he asked: “why don’t you help me create the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University,” he asked. Because you had never asked, I replied.

It did not take much more than that to form what I suspect is one of the most unusual working relationships ever forged. We are like brothers; in some ways, we are closer than brothers because we have never had a single quarrel. He is the Princeton professor from West Virginia that loves Oxford, country music and good wine. I am a chemical engineer that never studied a single humanities course in college, tone deaf, loves hiking and sports, raised in Mexico that cannot distinguish a Chianti from a Bordeaux.

Sure, some people become celebrities at the expense of others but most earn their way to the top. If anyone ask me, what is it about Robby? I would have said it then, as I say it now: never have I met any a person for whom ideas matter, the way they matter to Robby.

In one of those early conversations with friends, I heard Robby describe the James Madison Program as an educational program at Princeton University where—he said—“we will conduct business in the currency of ideas.” I was hooked. This struck me as novel and powerful. I had heard that ideas matter, but never put in quite those terms: “we work in the currency of ideas.” It would be years before I knew what it meant.

Take for instance the close friendship between Robby George and Cornel West—the African-American philosopher of religion that taught at Princeton for about 10 years, where he met George and became friends. What drives them together in friendship is the irresistible power of ideas. Some years back, Cornel and Robby co-taught a seminar for freshmen at Princeton. Interest amongst the students ran very high. Both Robby and Cornel would discuss the same book, from their own perspective, to the fascination of the students. The seminar took place on Wednesday afternoons, and every Wednesday before class, Robby and Cornel would lunch together. Two friends, with very different understandings of the world, driven to friendship by ideas.

About once or twice per year, Robby teams up with other Princeton senior faculty that are musicians to play country music. Last year, his friend from the Philosophy department told Robby that one of the musicians that would participate was a graduate student well known for his pro-gay agenda. He wanted Robby to know this ahead of time and told him that Robby would be excused if he so desired. Robby responded that he was ready to play and enjoy everyone’s company. Evidently, this young man was still uncomfortable but decided to show up anyway. The result was a grand old time. Robby is never afraid of anyone because of his or her ideas.

There was another occasion when a gay student showed up at Robby’s class, with a banjo on hand and ready to disrupt. Robby immediately invited the student to come in to class and since he had another banjo, they both starting playing together to the amazement of the class. What was intended to be a disruption of the class turned out to be a moment of good fun.

To understand Robby George one has to account for his love of ideas, any ideas. This is a man that is not threatened by what his opponents think. This is a man that is thrilled by the opportunity to reduce to ashes bad ideas.

Get a hold of the power of ideas in Robby George, and you get a hold of the man.

• Luis Tellez is President of The Witherspoon Institute.

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