WASHINGTON -- The 74 young men and women gathered at the British Embassy were on the eve of a crucial experience they will share with a president, Bill Clinton; a mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke; a would-be president, Bill Bradley; and a Supreme Court justice, Stephen G. Breyer.
These are Rhodes and Marshall scholars, America's best and brightest, who this week begin expense-paid stints at the top English universities.
This year for the first time, the 32 Rhodes and 42 Marshall scholars were commingled for two days of orientation that culminated in a White House visit to meet President Clinton -- Rhodes '68 -- and this reception and dinner at the British Embassy. Former winners, including many Rhodes scholars from before World War II, were in their midst.
"It certainly changed my life," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who was a Marshall scholar in 1960 out of Notre Dame. "I was thrown in with a group of scientists doing research at a level I had never seen. What they were doing was coming up with the theories of plate tectonics," the fundamental explanation of the construction of Earth's surface.
"After a couple of years of that, I realized I wasn't smart enough for this, so I came back and went to law school," Babbitt said. "But now that I'm secretary of the interior, the U.S. Geological Survey and all these people report to me. I can talk their talk."
Ted Leinbaugh, who chaired the Marshall scholarship committee for the southeast, said his stint as a Marshall also altered his life plans.
"I was a biophysics major at Yale, but when I went to Oxford, I decided to pursue an interest in medieval poetry," said Leinbaugh, who came back and got his doctorate in the subject and is on the English faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
His committee chose Johns Hopkins University graduate Craig Zapetis, a Miami native, who plans to continue studying his undergraduate major, political science, at Oxford.
"We learned a lot about what it is going to be like living in England," Zapetis said of the orientation sessions. But what impressed him most was a visit to the home of George C. Marshall, the general and statesman whose name is on his scholarship.
He was awed to learn of the accomplishments of Marshall, who many think deserves credit for the Allied military victory in World War II that he never received because President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted he remain in Washington during the war, leaving the glory to those in the field.
Funding a thank-you
The general moved on to run the Marshall Plan, which aided the rebuilding of Europe after the war. Funded by the British government, the Marshall scholarships were begun in 1953 as a thank-you. The German government funds a similarly named program.
"I am honored to have a scholarship that bears his name," Zapetis said.
When the Marshall scholarship program began, the better-known Rhodes scholarships were still restricted to men, so Marshalls were dominated by the country's top women. The Rhodes, which was first given in 1902, was opened to women in 1976.
Cecil John Rhodes certainly left his mark on the world, but not exactly in the manner of Marshall. Rhodes made his millions in South African diamonds and later got a country just to the north, Rhodesia, named after him by sponsoring its invasion.
In his will -- he died in 1902 at the age of 49 -- he endowed a scholarship program for Americans, Germans and residents of British colonies. It was designed to carry on his beliefs in British imperialism.
As he wrote in one of his wills: "I contend that we are the finest race in the world, and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race.
"Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence."
Rhodesia is now named Zimbabwe, and the company Rhodes founded is named after the farmer who owned its original diamond mine, De Beers. Only the scholarships continue his name -- indeed they have made his name part of a cliche: "It doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to "
Alter egos awarded
According to Rhodes, these scholars were to be chosen not only for their academic record, but also for their moral character and their love of sport. "In short, for everything Rhodes had never been," Stefan Kanfer wrote in "The Last Empire," the story of De Beers. The scholarships were to go to the type of people that Rhodes -- an indifferent student with effeminate manners and a weak constitution -- admired.
Although athletics was once a major consideration for a Rhodes -- Bradley was an All-American basketball player at Princeton, Schmoke the quarterback of the Yale football team -- that is no longer the case. "I think shooting pool suffices now," said one person at the party.
Rhodes' will said that race was not to be a factor in choosing scholars. But he excluded southern European countries from the scholarship program.
And he certainly didn't include the Dominican Republic, the native land of Jose Vargas, who moved to Gaithersburg at 13 and is a Loyola College graduate. Since he was awarded a Rhodes in December, Vargas has been spreading a different message than the one Rhodes had in mind.
"I have spent a lot of time talking to Hispanic children," Vargas said. "They usually only see negative images of Hispanics in the press. I try to let them know there are good things out there, too."
Standing out amid the young, fresh faces at the British Embassy were those of the Rhodes scholars from before World War II.
As Sir Christopher Meyer, the British ambassador, addressed the gathering, calling the young scholars "truly, the seed corn of the future," 87-year-old Eugene T. Booth settled into a chair.
A graduate of the high school where his father was principal in Cherokee County, Ga., in the mountains north of Atlanta, Booth attended the University of Georgia and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1934.
Advice: See the world
Booth's recommendation to the young scholars was to take advantage of their locale and travel, ticking off the countries he visited during his years at Oxford -- Spain, Germany, Italy, France.
Prewar Europe was then in tumult. A German he had met in Georgia tried to convert him to the Nazi cause, inviting him to meet Adolf Hitler in Munich. "I declined," Booth said of the chance to meet a pivotal figure in 20th-century history. "I sleep well with my decision."
In Spain, on the verge of revolution, a gold-mining family sized him up as a mate for their daughter. "I told them I would need the approval of my family and went back to England," he said.
The Rhodes changed Booth's life. He was recruited by Columbia University at Oxford, joined the physics department on his return and worked on proving that uranium 235 was fissionable and thus a crucial ingredient in an atomic bomb.
"So did you work on the Manhattan Project?" Zapetis asked.
"That's why they called it the Manhattan Project," Booth replied patiently. "Because we were doing this work at Columbia."
Pub Date: 10/08/99