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How Smart Should A President Be?

June 2024
12min read

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

The legacy of a political intellectual also depends on the quality of his ideas. Roosevelt, Lodge, and Wilson were all historians. But Lodge and (to a degree) Roosevelt actually cared about the history they described. Wilson was more interested in a vision of the future, spun out of his own rhetoric. This no doubt explains why Lodge and Roosevelt did less damage in the world.

Intellectual politicians often come to power at moments of transition or stress; hence, their failures, if they do fail, are correspondingly magnified. This in turn means that our attraction to them runs in cycles, requiring breathers between debacles. Our current crop is going out rather ingloriously, after scandal (Mr. Clinton) or truncated careers (Mr. Gingrich), and we probably won’t have to deal with another batch of them anytime soon. But perhaps as early as 2030, the intellectuals in office may stir again, telling us all they know about politics and government. Some of it will even be true. —Henry Cabot Lodge.

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