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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
Another politician with a first-rate brain was Roosevelt’s protégé, later his rival, William Howard Taft. Like Roosevelt, Taft did not obviously fit the role of intellectual politician. Though he graduated second in his class at Yale, one fellow student claimed he did well because “he was a plodder and not because he was particularly bright.” Yet Taft, who spent most of his life as a lawyer and a judge, had a serious interest in the principles of his field. “I love judges and I love courts,” he once said. “They … typify on earth what we shall meet hereafter in heaven under a just God.”
Taft’s legal framework was conservative. He saw the Constitution as a “buttress” of “written law. … against the attacks of anarchy, socialism and communism.” He favored activist judges defending contracts and property rights from the “gusty and unthinking passions” of voters and state legislatures. From 1896 to 1900 he was dean of the law department of the University of Cincinnati. After a twelve-year detour through the world of national politics, in which he served as president of the Philippine Commission, Secretary of War, and President, he returned to the classroom to teach law at Yale.
Henry Cabot Lodge could claim the honors of an intellectual without reservation. Like Roosevelt, he went to Harvard, where he studied medieval history with Henry Adams. “In just what way Mr. Adams aroused my slumbering faculties,” he recalled, “I am at a loss to say, but there can be no doubt of the fact.” Adams “awakened opposition to his own views, and that is one great secret of success in teaching. …it was not what I learned, but the fact that I learned something” that counted. From 1876 to 1879 Lodge taught American history at Harvard. He wrote a biography of his great-grandfather George Cabot, a Federalist politician, as well as A Short History of the English Colonies in America. The first book was attacked at length in the New York Tribune, which boosted sales. He helped Adams edit the North American Review, the most serious intellectual journal of the day, and produced biographies of Hamilton, Washington, and Daniel Webster, plus an edition of Hamilton’s papers. These works were not specimens of lofty objectivity. Lodge wrote as a partisan of the Federalist and Whig tradition of vigorous government and a foreign policy based on national self-interest. “Mr. Lodge was very naturally inclined to make a hero of Hamilton,” the editor of his Hamilton biography commented, but “he at least practiced a strictly reasonable and intelligent worship.”
After more than ten years as a teacher and an intellectual journalist, Lodge was elected to Congress in 1886. Woodrow Wilson was interested in politics all his adult life—in college, he and a friend vowed to “acquire knowledge that we might have power”…but it took him far longer to move from the academy to the hustings. After graduating from Princeton and receiving his law degree, and having practiced law for nearly two years, Wilson decided that professors could be “an outside force in politics.” He taught history and government at a series of colleges, finally ending up on the faculty of his alma mater. His first book, Congressional Government (1885), attacked Congress’s committee system as government by “disintegration,” in which “power is nowhere concentrated.” The Presidency, as administered by the bewhiskered Republicans of the late nineteenth century, offered no counterweight to congressional barons. Wilson held up, as an alternative, the British system, with its disciplined parliamentary majority led by a strong prime minister.
In 1902 he became president of Princeton. His tenure was big with portents for the other presidency he would occupy. Before Wilson, Princeton, like other Ivy League colleges (with the partial exception of Harvard), had been a gentlemen’s club. He transformed it into the nation’s foremost intellectual institution by hiring and inspiring a cadre of bright young tutors and introducing a system of modified electives, with majors, which became universal. But the golden age began tarnishing in 1906, when he attempted a series of reforms that led him into endless battles with hostile faculty and trustees.