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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?
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
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.
This age of intellectuals also coincided with the Progressive Era. Progressives were a protean group, with a range of motives, from citizen disgust with political corruption and the hubris of big business to the irritation of clergymen, lawyers, and old-stock patricians over the fact that steel manufacturers and railroad magnates were enjoying higher social status. The Progressive movement left its mark on everything from foreign policy (in which it supported what today would be called a pro-active stance) to domestic agendas (the New Deal and the Great Society would have been unimaginable without it). Progressives also put their faith in the rational directing of politics—by themselves, of course—and not surprisingly, the political intellectuals of the era had well-articulated stances toward the Progressive ideal.
Only two factors limited the dominance of the début de siècle political intellectuals: They lessened their effectiveness by fighting among themselves, and the rule of the brainy may be self-limiting anyway. How smart is it to put smart guys in power?
The first time America tried to do such a thing, it worked very well. The Founding Thinkers—Franklin, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Adams, Gouverneur Morris—belong on any all-time short list of political immortals, and their success gave the idea of ideas a special place in American politics. America, it could plausibly be argued, was a nation of ideas—“dedicated” to a “proposition,” as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg.
We are in another era of political intellectuals now, admittedly less glittering. For four years the Speaker of the House was Newt Gingrich, a former history professor with a didactic streak, who bristled with pet ideas, from the scholarship of the American Revolutionary historian Gordon S. Wood to the futurism of Alvin and Heidi Toffler. One of his assignments to the Republican freshmen of the 104th Congress was a reading list. Probably not all of them gamely plowed through Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, as directed, but I know at least one middle-aged activist who did. Last year Gingrich was deposed, but his number two man in the House remains: Dick Armey, a former economics professor. Meanwhile at the White House there is Bill Clinton, no scholar (though he was a Rhodes scholar) but as fond as Gingrich of spritzing ideas.
The age of Clinton and Gingrich is too fresh to study impartially, and the Founding may be too shrouded with light. But the Progressive Era, besides its own interest, can provide a window on the problem of intellectuals in power.
Like Roosevelt, Taft did not obviously fit the role of intellectual politician; a Yale classmate called him “a plodder.”
The dominant personality of the period, and the only one to get his face on Mount Rushmore, was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s various personas—whether as a Rough Rider or as a silk-stocking Knickerbocker whose first appearance in the New York Assembly, in swallowtail coat and bellbottom trousers, caused one observer to ask, “Who’s the dude?”—were not commonly associated with the life of the mind. Roosevelt loved to affect a rhetoric of populism, which he wielded as harshly as George Wallace or Spiro Agnew against intellectuals he didn’t like. In an 1894 article titled “What Americanism Means,” he took a swipe at “the undersized man of letters, who flees his country because he, with his delicate, effeminate sensitiveness, finds…that he cannot play a man’s part among men…”
Yet Roosevelt was a man of letters (oversized?) himself. He was an insatiable reader; during a period of cattle ranching in the Dakota Territory, he took Anna Karenina along while leading a posse to round up thieves who had stolen a flat-bottomed boat. He wrote competent, if potboiling, biographies of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, Gouverneur Morris, and Oliver Cromwell. His rate of production could be awesome; he churned out the bulk of the eighty-three-thousand-word Benton biography in three weeks. Two of his works, The Naval War of 1812 and The Winning of the West, involved serious research and are still worth reading. Roosevelt modestly told his friend the author Owen Wister that he had only a “second-rate brain,” but the British historian Lord Bryce, when he heard of the remark, disagreed: “He had a brain that could always go straight to the pith of any matter. That is a mental power of the first rank.”