How Smart Should A President Be?

Smarter than stupid, of course; but does the intellectual tradition that began with the century suggest there is such a thing as being too smart for the country’s good?

The century now ending opened with a political situation that is both unusual and recurring: Intellectuals were somewhat firmly in the saddle. From 1901 to 1921 the White House was occupied by three authors—Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. Taft and Wilson were ex-professors to boot. One of the powers of the Senate, Henry Cabot Lodge, was another author-professor.

 
 
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Presidents On Presidents

They’ve all had things to say about their fellow Executives. Once in a great while one was even flattering.

John Adams said Thomas Jefferson’s mind was “eaten to a honeycomb with ambition, yet weak, confused, uninformed, and ignorant.” Ulysses S. Grant said James Garfield did not have “the backbone of an angleworm.” Theodore Roosevelt called Woodrow Wilson “a Byzantine logothete.” Wilson called Chester Arthur “a nonentity with sidewhiskers.” Harry Truman summed up Lyndon Johnson with a curt “No guts!” Read more »

The Presidential Follies

An old, familiar show is back in Washington. There’s a new cast, of course, but the script is pretty much the same as ever. Here’s the program.

WHEN THE IRAN-CONTRA STORY BROKE LAST NOVEMBER, A NUMBER OF public figures as well as news commentators put the revelations in a historical context. Walter Mondale said in a New York Times interview: “It was all so knowable. Did they really think they could get away with it—violate the law and nobody would care?...They were so full of hubris....” Read more »

An Epitaph For Mr. Lincoln

The curiously troubled origin of a brief and fitting inscription

On February 9, 1911, Congress approved a bill authorizing construction of a monument to Abraham Lincoln in the nation’s capital. The notion of building such a memorial had long moved many people for varied reasons. The Republican party naturally wanted to honor its greatest hero. Millions of Americans saw a memorial as a way of finally announcing the end of sectional animosities as the Civil War receded into history.Read more »

Edward Bok & The Simple Life

At the turn of the century, a crusading magazine editor exhorted women to seek peace of mind and body through simplicity. For a generation, they listened.

FOR THE THIRTY YEARS between 1889 and 1919, Edward Bok and the magazine he edited—Ladies’ Home Journal—exerted a profound influence over middle-class American values. His message was direct: The Simple Life was joyous and good, and too many Americans, seduced by the clutter and false values of Victorian materialism, had drifted away from it. Read more »

Presidents Emeritus

The ex-Presidency now carries perquisites and powers that would have amazed all but the last few who have held that office

What should be done with exPresidents? William Howard Taft once remarked that perhaps the best way to handle a former President was to chloroform and ceremonially cremate him when he left office, in order to “fix his place in history and enable the public to pass on to new men and new measures.” Taft did not insist on this ritual for himself, however, accepting instead a professorship at the Yale Law School when he finished his presidential term, and later serving as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

 
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Culinary Art

Americans used to take their dinners seriously. The preposterous social arbiter Ward McAllister proclaimed in 1890 that “a dinner invitation, once accepted, is a sacred obligation. If you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must attend the dinner.” In that era there were dinners at the Waldorf that cost a hundred and twenty dollars a setting at which guests were served as many as twelve courses.Read more »

The Summer White House In The Clouds

Perched on Mount Falcon as the mist rose and the cloudcapped towers caught the first rays of the morning sun, it would seem a dream palace, the residence of the Great Khan or a Dalai Lama, remote, unapproachable, yet somehow the center of the world. The rational air of midday would give the granite battlements and vast donjon the more formidable aspect of the krak des Chevaliers or Marienburg of the Teutonic Knights.Read more »

A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama!

The Big Ditch had so far been a colossal flop, and Teddy Roosevelt desperately needed an engineering genius who could take over the job and “make the dirt fly.” The answer was not the famous Goethals, but a man whom history has forgotten.

The Panama Canal was the biggest, most costly thing Americans had ever attempted beyond their borders, as was plain to everyone in the summer of 1905, and particularly to the man most responsible for the project, Theodore Roosevelt. But as Roosevelt also knew full well by then, and as the American people were beginning to suspect, the Canal was so far a colossal flop.Read more »

The Millionaire Reformer

In the era of the Bull Moose, Progressivism became a party; the man behind Roosevelt was, of all things, a Morgan partner

It is the evening of June 20, 1912; the scene, a large room in the Congress Hotel in Chicago. About twenty men are present. Perhaps a dozen of them are seated around a large table. Others sprawl wearily in armchairs or lean against the walls. One, a solid, determined-looking fellow with thick glasses and a bristling mustache, paces grimly back and forth in silence, like a caged grizzly. He is Theodore Roosevelt, and these are his closest political advisers. All of them are very, very angry.

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