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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
Wilson took on Princeton’s exclusive fraternity-like eating clubs; he proposed a system of self-contained quadrangles, based on the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge; and he tried to divert a half-million-dollar gift from an alumnus for an off-campus graduate school into a down payment for an on-campus site. Wilson’s new fights differed from one another. The attack on the eating clubs, even then a Princeton tradition, was provocative but perhaps winnable (Yale eliminated sophomore societies, then as prestigious as its secret senior societies, at the same time); the quadrangle plan was sweeping and visionary; the attempt to weasel with the terms of a bequest was an instance of petty tyranny, the bureaucratic mind at its worst. But Wilson approached each struggle in the same rigid spirit, refusing all compromises, attacking all dissidents. Taking up the three issues in quick succession virtually doomed his chances of winning any. Wilson’s sympathetic biographer Arthur Link, who was as baffled by Wilson’s behavior as his contemporaries, wrote that “the vagaries of his mind during this period are unfathomable.” But his conduct had been foreshadowed in Congressional Government: The college president felt like the President of the United States, hemmed in by the Princeton equivalent of congressional committee chairmen, yearning instead to be an academic prime minister.
In a bid to outflank his enemies, Wilson took his campaigns to local alumni meetings nationwide and also to the New York newspapers, where he depicted his critics as not just mistaken but malign. He characterized a counter-proposal to one of his reforms as “un-American”—a sign of what Link called his “psychological intoxication.” Wilson was saved from the mess he had made of Princeton by an offer from the New Jersey Democratic party to be its candidate for governor in 1910.
Which of the intellectual politicians had the best mind? This is a futile question, given their different temperaments and career paths. Wilson certainly was the most successful at advancing himself. Though he made a late entry into politics, he would manage to win two presidential elections, which Taft and even Roosevelt were unable to do. Lodge never reached for the brass ring but did spend thirty-eight years as a representative and a senator. There is no question who wrote the best prose. Taft’s is solid; Roosevelt’s spirited, if slipshod. Wilson’s is fussy and windy, like the sermons of some priggish divine. Only Lodge can be read with real pleasure; not coincidentally, he was the only one of the four with a sense of humor.
Elevated to the White House by the assassination of William McKinley, then smashingly elected in his own right in 1904, Roosevelt was the first Progressive President. He won a Nobel Peace Prize, dug the Panama Canal, and initiated the lawsuit that broke up John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. As the end of his first full term approached, he tapped Taft, his Secretary of War, as his successor. Surprisingly, Taft, despite his fundamental conservatism, continued Roosevelt’s diplomatic and economic programs. TR called himself a trustbuster, yet the Taft administration actually busted more trusts than he had. But Taft had a quieter style and alienated GOP Progressives in the House. Most important, his patron decided, after a few boring years of retirement, that he wanted his old job back. When the GOP nominated Taft in 1912, Roosevelt formed his own party, which he named, with characteristic pizzazz, the Bull Moose. Lodge, an old friend of Roosevelt but a GOP loyalist, wrote him a “dear Theodore” letter: ”…I never thought that any situation could arise which would have made me so miserably unhappy….” Roosevelt magnanimously released him from any obligation to join the Bull Mooses. Meanwhile, Governor Wilson, who had been mentioned as a presidential candidate for a decade, won the Democratic nomination, thus setting up a three-way, high-IQ presidential race.
It is significant that Wilson and Roosevelt each found it useful to make the case for his brand of politics in intellectual terms. Wilson had made the earliest start, with his 1907 book Constitutional Government. In part it reprised the themes of Congressional Government, calling for a more active and unified leadership. But Wilson now wanted that leadership to incarnate the forces of history: ”…the Constitution of the United States is not a mere lawyers’ document; it is a vehicle of life, and its spirit is always the spirit of the age.” Roosevelt outlined his own version of the spirit of the age in a speech titled “New Nationalism.” “I stand for the Square Deal,” he declared, by which “I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity….” If these credos sounded vague, so was the domestic agenda of Progressivism. Progressives disliked socialism as heartily as did William Howard Taft, but they did not want the new captains of industry ruling Congress or the economy unchecked. Wilson’s and Roosevelt’s arguments were a spirited, if inconclusive, search for a third way. Taft put his own, more cautious thoughts into a book, Popular Government . But, in a symbol of his essentially apolitical nature, he did not bring it out until the year after the election.