The irony of the Oval Office

It’s tough to make historical assessments of presidents currently in, or recently removed from, office.  The passions and scars of political battle still sting.

If we were to hold a fantasy draft of presidents, and I could draft only from among those who were derided by their contemporaries as not terribly bright (in one fashion or another, before election) and my opponent only from among those who were praised for intelligence…

Reagan GOP Carter DEM
Ike GOP Nixon GOP
Harding GOP Coolidge GOP
Lincoln GOP Wilson DEM
Washington n/a TR GOP

Maybe there’s something more to the office than a contemporary perception of IQ.  Maybe the perceptions are off, and/or maybe it requires a different type of intelligence:  a mix of brains, wisdom, and judgment required to run large organizations that is sometimes referred to as executive intelligence.

Here is Jonah Goldberg writing in Obama’s Outsized Ego:

There’s an irony to occupying the Oval Office. When presidents think they’re bigger than the job they hold, they shrink in office. When they think they’re smaller than the honor that has temporarily been bestowed upon them, they grow into it. Obama has done nothing but shrink.

Here is one of the smart ones demonstrating the latter trait:

Under a system of popular government there will always be those who will seek for political preferment by clamoring for reform. While there is very little of this which is not sincere, there is a large portion that is not well informed. In my opinion very little of just criticism can attach to the theories and principles of our institutions. There is far more danger of harm than there is hope of good in any radical changes.

Calvin Coolidge, from his speech on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence

The Œcumenical Volgi at the Gormogons offers a related assessment of Wilson:

Woodrow Wilson is a textbook example of why idea-besotted intellectuals need to be kept far, far away from the levers of power. He had a Messiah complex (though as David Frum once joked to the ŒV, regarding Wilson’s reception in Europe after the war, “It’s hard not to believe you’re the Messiah when everyone’s telling you you are!”) and an illiberal ideological project which he pushed—not only riding the wave of war fever and jingoism but stoking it as it was a crisis far too good to waste, as it allowed him and his fellow illuminati* the opportunity to jettison the aspects of constitutional government they despised.

If Glenn Beck goes bonkers in his denunciations of Wilson as the American Satan®, McLeod is erring too far on the side of making Wilson a passive object of historical forces. Wilson was an innovator in a number of respects, and his ideas had identifiable heritage. Two of these were German state-centric political philosophy and a reading of American history which held the emancipation of blacks to have been a huge mistake. If we can’t condemn Wilson for not only adopting but actively advancing these ideas in practice, we can’t really condemn anyone for anything.

Goldberg, again, on the topic:

A big chunk of his critique boils down to an argument I’ve heard many times: Wilson (or this or that progressive) merely reflected the prevailing ideas at the time. Well, that’s sort of my argument, you know? That these were the prevailing ideas at the time: Collectivism, eugenics, militarism (both as a mobilizing metaphor as well as the real thing), nationalism, statolatry, technocracy and – in America – a desire to “Europeanize,” often on Bismarckian lines,  political institutions and arrangements. And while these ideas were popular in all sorts of places, their champions were the Progressives.

…and this too, quoting a reader (and history professor):

The best example is Wilson’s much maligned successor Warren Harding.  Harding appointed (or reappointed, if you will) blacks to federal posts and, most importantly, gave a striking civil rights address in Birmingham, Alabama in the fall of 1921, chastising Southerners for their racial policies.  He was roundly condemned by Southern senators for exacerbating the “race problem.”

For more detail, check out the Harding biographers on this.  I think John Dean’s bio talks about it, perhaps also Robert K. Murray.  You can also do a quick NYTimes search in Sept-Nov 1921 for Harding articles and his trip to the South.

And he certainly tacked to Wilson’s right on a host of issues.

And he released all of Wilson’s political prisoners, including E.V. Debbs. And  his “return to normalcy” — dubbed “fascist” by FDR — was certainly a stark move to the right, according to progressives, and a stark move toward sanity according to the rest of us.

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