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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 contest was exciting, but the outcome was predetermined. With Roosevelt and Taft splitting the Republican vote, Wilson’s 43 percent of the popular vote was enough to carry forty states in the Electoral College.
Wilson’s experience in Washington mirrored his tenure at Princeton. In his first term as President, he lowered tariffs and regulated utilities, and early in his second, with a crusader’s fervor, he carried the United States into World War I. His fortunes changed when he tried to establish peace on earth. Wilson thought the carnage of the war could be redeemed by founding a League of Nations, which would prevent future conflicts. In his mind the League became a mission, conferred on him by the forces of history. “Any man who resists the present tides that run in the world,” he warned, will be “separated from his human kind forever.” Unfortunately he reckoned without the most potent baron in Congress, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Lodge did not want to see Wilson and the Democrats coast to a third straight victory on a reputation as world savers. He also had reservations about the League as Wilson and the victorious Allies had constructed it at the Versailles peace negotiations. Article X of the Covenant of the League, which was incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles, obliged all members to defend any other member that came under attack. Lodge, the biographer of Washington and Hamilton, archetypal foreign policy realists, wanted Congress to retain the power to declare wars. “Would it not be worthwhile,” he asked, “to pause a moment before we commit ourselves to [declaring] war at the pleasure of other nations in whose councils we shall have but one vote?” Lodge proposed that the United States sign the treaty and enter the League, with reservations.
But Wilson, who returned to America from Europe in July 1919, would have none of it. He told Congress that “the hand of God…led us into this way. We cannot turn back.” He ordered Senate Democrats to accept nothing less than the League in its pristine form and embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the West, giving hour-long speeches twice a day, in which he assailed his opponents for “disloyalty” and “serv[ing] Germany’s purposes.” En route from Colorado to Kansas, he collapsed, and he spent the remainder of his term a physical wreck. Still he was able in the spring of 1920 to write Lodge that their argument over Article X was a fight between “democracy” and “imperialism.” In the end neither Lodge’s version of the League and the treaty nor Wilson’s could win two-thirds of the vote in the Senate. “The devil is a busy man,” Wilson remarked when the treaty died. But men who think, as he did, that they are on God’s, or history’s, side are equally busy, and can be equally destructive.
Roosevelt had died in 1919 before he could run for the White House a third time. Wilson left office at the end of his second term, a broken man. The nation turned gratefully to Warren G. Harding, whom no one ever thought of as an intellectual (though Harding was not hostile to the breed; he appointed Taft Chief Justice of the United States). The chairman of the Republican Convention that had nominated Harding was Henry Cabot Lodge. “It was delightful,” wrote H. L. Mencken in his convention coverage, “to observe the sardonic glitter in [Lodge’s] eye, his occasional ill-concealed snort…. He presided over the sessions from a sort of aloof intellectual balcony, far above the swarming and bawling of the common herd.”
Any man who did not follow Wilson’s policies, warned the President, will be “separated from his human kind forever.”
What general lesson does the Progressive Era teach about intellectuals in politics? The various legacies of the four smart men who saw the century in had as much to do with differences in judgment and self-control as with intelligence. Roosevelt was impulsive, and both he and Wilson were besotted with ambition. But most politicians are the second, and many are the first. Wilson achieved much and ruined even more; Lodge had a career of quiet persistence. To the extent that they are wordsmiths, intellectual politicians can be effective press agents for their ideas and for themselves. This can give them a quick start in the race for office and success.
Whether they go on to victory and achievement depends in part on their character. Perhaps the success of the early American smart guys relied on the steadying presence of a George Washington in their midst. Washington, though smart, would have been the first to say that he was no intellectual (he called his own education, which included no time in college, “defective”). Socrates, who first recommended philosopher kings—let us “appoint as Guardians,” he argued in The Republic , “…those who have learned to know the ideal reality of things”—added that the right ideas were not enough; the philosopher king should also possess “experience” and “virtue,” areas in which everyone gave Washington the highest marks. The three philosophers who followed him in the White House — Adams, Jefferson, and Madison — served five terms altogether, of which only one (Jefferson’s first) was a success. Perhaps the wise leader should strive to have intellectuals on tap and not be one himself.