Probably the most underutilized question in social interaction is the old “dinner party” question – that is, what three people, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with?
For me, I’ve had two-thirds of the answer down for quite some time now: Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Could you imagine sitting down to eat between these two men? On the left side you have Jefferson, the first Democratic president, red-headed and rigid, a taciturn and shy man who actively avoided the political stage only to serve in virtually every major governmental office, a man who owned slaves yet canonized the concept that all men are created equal; on the right side you have Lincoln, the first Republican president, dark-haired and lanky, limbs going every which way as he fills in the silences with country yarns and dirty jokes, a career politician who endlessly courted the political stage despite losing nearly every office he ran for, a man who proved that all men were created equal by freeing the slaves.
To call such a meal epic would be an understatement; with any luck, the discussion might unfold into a discourse about the values upon which the country was founded and the price of what those values turned out to be, the sins of the father atoned by the bloody actions of the son. It would be the two most unknowable and enigmatic men America has ever produced, sitting face-to-face and breaking bread.
But what to do about the elusive third chair? Who could go there? With my historical/cultural desires satiated by Jefferson and Lincoln, it seems like throwing a third American historical giant (Washington? Franklin? A Roosevelt?) in the mix would be too much. After all, even the Marx Brothers had Zeppo.
The third chair also allows me to get a bit of a “freebie,” a chance to take a risk on someone who might not fit in with my first two choices. There’s always the temptation to do a great-grandfather or some relative you always heard about but never knew, but I would feel weird having a mini-family reunion in the middle of what could be a fascinating political discourse. I also feel like the idea of choosing someone who’s a near-complete historical enigma – such as, say, the obscure blues singer Geeshie Wiley or the archetypal media mogul Johannes Gutenberg – could be a major risk, especially if that person turned out to be thoroughly uninteresting.
They say that Elvis was always a disappointment to meet in real life (I mean, how could any man live up to ELVIS, the idea?), so he’s out. Plus, it might be unnerving to Jefferson and Lincoln, who would have no frame of reference for this strange-looking person who might as well be a man from space. Also, I’d probably embarrass myself by spending too much time studying his hair or gazing into his eyes.
Shakespeare’s too much of a crapshoot, especially if you call into question the authorship of his plays. What if it turns out that the plays were in fact written by someone else? Would you want to share your epic dinner with a crooked theater owner who left his widow a “second-best bed” in his will? So foul and unfair a dinner-guest I have not seen. Shakepeare’s out.
I am also striking out all biblical figures because they could be potentially distracting. There’s too great a chance that both Jefferson and Lincoln would rather speak to this person rather than to each other; plus, they might be too overly guarded in terms of what they say in front of them. I mean, who wants to drop an F-bomb in front of Moses? Certainly not Abraham Lincoln.
I would also rule out figures like Genghis Khan or Cleopatra because of the language barrier. Joan of Arc is an exception, since she’s French, and Jefferson could translate. But once again, we run the risk of Jefferson and Lincoln being more interested in speaking to someone else rather than to each other; plus, I hate the idea of giving Jefferson an extra job. I mean, it’s not like there’ll be rails to split right by the dinner table.
All of which leaves me with one name: Will Rogers. Think about it – he comes after Jefferson and Lincoln, knows each of their contexts, and would be hilarious about it at the same time. If things got heated or awkward at any point, I could just turn to Will Rogers and get him to jump in with a quick look or a nod. He would basically be just another modern spectator, much like myself. Only about a thousand times funnier.
Now, who’s gonna pick up the check…?