Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once told Ronald Reagan that J. William Middendorf II was the best United States ambassador she had ever met.
As Mr. Middendorf tells it, then-President Reagan replied, “Oh Maggie, I love Bill. But I’ve got 152 ambassadors. Why do you say that?”
The Iron Lady responded by saying that whenever she gave a speech, she’d notice the ambassador carefully taking notes nearby.
“The truth is,” says Mr. Middendorf, a Little Compton resident for six decades, “I was making a sketch of her.”
He finally came clean last year, when Mrs. Thatcher traveled to Washington, D.C. for a meeting of the Heritage Foundation. Mr. Middendorf “confessed” and then showed Mrs. Thatcher three or four of his portraits, which amused her.
“She signed each one, ‘To Bill, my great friend,’ or something like that,” Mr. Middendorf said.
The 87-year-old West Main Road resident has met some of the top movers and shakers of the political world during his storied career. President Richard Nixon appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands, where he served from 1969 to 1973. In 1974 he was named secretary of the Navy, serving under President Gerald Ford, and in 1981 he was appointed permanent representative of the United States to the Organization of American States, with the rank of ambassador. Mr. Middendorf was also one of the architects of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Through it all, his sketchbook has always been by his side, recording dignitaries and friends from all over the world. “I’ll be at a conference or something and I’d sketch them. It’s sort of a history of our time,” said Mr. Middendorf.
You can get a glimpse of his art — not the political sketches, however — at a new exhibit at the Donovan Gallery in Tiverton called “Reflections.” On display through Aug. 4, the show features his sketches of circus scenes — the idea of daughter Frances, an artist in Italy who will be displaying her etchings as well.
“She called me from Italy and told me, ‘Let’s do the circus,’” said Mr. Middendorf, who created about 25 small illustrations within a month. “Then (gallery owner) Kris (Donovan) called me about a month and a half ago and said we should get some paintings up.”
All the paintings are of Little Compton and the surrounding area, including his backyard cow pasture which he can see out his kitchen window on West Main Road. “Right now we’ve got about 40 or 50 cows. We did have 110 — too many.”
Ms. Donovan, who’s known Mr. Middendorf since she first opened her gallery at Tiverton Four Corners 30 years ago, said she’s excited to have her old friend’s artwork on her walls. “It’s wonderful,” she said. “It’s been a while since Bill has had a show here, and they’re always very successful and just simply fun.”
Ms. Donovan used to host workshops for professional artists at the former Stone House in Little Compton. “We had people coming from all over the country, and Bill used to come,” she said.
“I miss those,” replied Mr. Middendorf.
One of the paintings that hangs in the gallery got him into a little bit of hot water. Mr. Middendorf was painting a farm and its hay bales when one of the property owners starting giving him grief. “He was yelling at me, ‘Stop painting my picture!’ Then he came on down and I thought he might threaten me, so I jumped in the car and left,” he said.
Presumably, the angry farmer did not know he was coming after a former secretary of the Navy.
Life on the world stage
Mr. Middendorf remembers being awed by Winston Churchill during the British prime minister’s visit in 1943 to Harvard, where he graduated. He joined the Navy that year — serving briefly on The Pacific — and later became an investment banker before serving as treasurer for Barry Goldwater’s calamitous run for president in 1964.
“We lost big — 15 million votes — but (Republicans) went on to win five of the next six elections,” said Mr. Middendorf, whose 2006 book, “Glorious Disaster: Barry Goldwater’s Presidential Campaign and the Origins of the Conservative Movement,” argues that the campaign became the foundation of the modern conservative movement.
“Prior to that we had conservatives who were enunciating these issues, but they didn’t know how to put it together into a structure,” said Mr. Middendorf, who calls himself conservative but “not just Republican. There are a heck of a lot of good Democrats.”
President Nixon, who appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands, was “brilliant but paranoid.” More impressive, he said, was President Reagan. “He was brilliant; he wrote all his own speeches,” said Mr. Middendorf, adding that Reagan also possessed a wonderful self-deprecating humor that would always disarm people before a meeting.
Mr. Middendorf still has his hands in Washington politics. (He was in D.C. just three weeks ago and was planning to return this week.) He’s chairman of the Defense Forum Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit foundation dedicated to promoting a strong national defense and freedom, democracy and human rights abroad. He also chairs the Committee for Monetary Research & Education, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes public understanding of how a healthy monetary system plays in the well-being of a free society.
“I keep busy in a lot of things. As a member of the Over the Hill Gang, it’s nice to be included in activities. I seem to be more active now than I’ve ever been,” said Mr. Middendorf, who has no plans to retire any time soon.
Despite his busy schedule, his creative side never stops. No matter where he goes, Mr. Middendorf sketches practically everyone he comes in contact with — including the reporter who was interviewing him last week at the gallery. He handed over a small sketch book — “I’ve got 620 of these books somewhere,” he said — filled with charming drawings of people (famous or anonymous), pets, seascapes and more.
“I could fill up a book in a day,” he said, adding, “I’ve been painting ever since I was a kid. It takes my mind off the Bolsheviks.”
Drawing and painting are not his only creative outlets. Mr. Middendorf is also a prolific composer who’s written about 100 Navy marches for different ships. He also composed “Holland Symphony,” which was presented to Dutch Queen Juliana on the 25th anniversary of her ascension to the throne.
“They played it on Dutch national television.”
Mr. Middendorf has even conducted the Boston Pops on a few occasions. He doesn’t play an instrument himself, however. “I’m a failed musician. People who can’t play, write,” he said.
Being a man with connections, it’s only natural that he’s befriended some famous artists he admires. One of his works at the gallery is a self-portrait which Ms. Donovan said shows “his mischievous side.”
The fact that it resembles a painting by a certain American artist familiar to all is no coincidence. “I was a friend of Norman Rockwell and admired his technique, so I sort of sketched that in his style. He was always having those whimsical smiles.”
Mr. Middendorf, who studied at the Art Students League in New York, also became friends with Dick Sargent, who along with Rockwell painted covers for the Saturday Evening Post, as well as Edward Hopper, the celebrated realist painter and printmaker.
When asked who was more interesting, a president or an artist, he didn’t hesitate.
“Edward Hopper would speak three words in an evening which would be greater than any of the political B.S. that I’ve heard through the years.”
Artists 1, politicians 0.
Works up through Aug. 4
You can view new etchings and paintings by Mr. Middendorf in “Reflections,” an exhibit at The Donovan Gallery that’s on display through Aug. 4. The show will also feature etchings by his daughter, Frances Middendorf.
The gallery is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. It’s located at 3895 Main Road at Tiverton Four Corners.
For more information, call 401/624-4000 or visit http://donovangallery.com.