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by William H. Benson

October 30, 2008

     At the founding of our nation and the creation of the government, the intellectuals ruled. Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton had each read the political treatises of the European thinkers, men such as John Locke and Jean Jacque Rousseau, as well as the Greek and Roman political philosophers. That the Founding Fathers had done their homework was evident when they wrote first the Declaration of Independence and then the Constitution. The intellectuals were the elite.

     That did not remain true, especially when Andrew Jackson and his popular form of democracy claimed the Presidency. The night of his inauguration the common people—frontiersmen and rogues alike—stormed into the White House and trashed it. Intellect for a season was checked and replaced with arbitrary decisions and unrestrained power.

     Abraham Lincoln was a self-taught intellect, arguably the best writer and thinker of all our Presidents, and yet, he was first and foremost a politician.

     Lincoln’s general, Ulysses S. Grant, proved himself a brilliant military strategist during the Civil War but an abject failure as a President, who then partially redeemed himself with his Memoirs, an outstanding example of military biography.

     Woodrow Wilson was a historian and a political scientist at Princeton, before becoming Princeton’s president, then the governor of the state of New Jersey, and finally the President of the United States. In spite of his intellect, he was cold, reserved, impersonable, and unbending, such that his Presidency faltered and ended in disgrace.

     Franklin Roosevelt in the early days of his New Deal gathered a privy council, which a reporter dubbed the Brain Trust, to advise him on the intricacies of global and national economics. Indeed, the experts and the intellects “seemed to have free access to the White House while the President kept the politicians at arm’s length.” Not a bad idea.

     The intellectuals then loved Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois, when he ran for President in 1952 and 1956, embracing him “with a readiness and a unanimity that seems without parallel in American history,” and yet the common people loved Dwight D. Eisenhower more.

     Kennedy peopled his cabinet with his own Brain Trust, young men, brash and action-oriented, from the big business world and the universities, men such as Douglas Dillon, Robert McNamara, and Dean Rusk. One day at a meeting of the intellects, Kennedy observed that never before had more intelligent people gathered at one time in the White House, “except when Jefferson dined alone.”

     Carter was knowledgeable about each of the issues, but his Presidency was mired in galloping inflation, a crippled military, a hostage crisis in Iran, and a stagnant economy. Reagan did not possess Carter’s encyclopedic grasp of the facts, but his talent was to perceive the crucial point of each issue and then communicate that to the people.

     Clinton was a Rhodes scholar, a graduate of Georgetown and of Yale Law School, who taught law at Arkansas’s law school before running for governor. His wisdom, training, and breadth of knowledge of the economy and foreign and national policy made for a good government—a balanced budget, low unemployment, slight inflation, and positive economic growth—despite his personal moral lapses.

     When told of the attack upon Iraq in March of 2003, Paul O’Neill, George W. Bush’s first Secretary of Treasury, said, “Trust me, they haven’t thought this through.” Indeed, they had not, and the dire results of this rash decision were quickly evident and still are.

        And now it is either Obama or McCain. Who has the greater intellect, the more focused mental acuity, and the wisdom to gather advice and build a good government?

     Newsweek‘s Fareed Zakaria reported last week that “Throughout the campaign, McCain has been volatile and impulsive. He moves suddenly and unpredictably. By contrast, Barack Obama has been steady and reasoned. McCain’s campaign has been chaotic and ineffective, while Obama has run a superb operation, and done so with little of the drama and discord that usually plague political machines.”

     On Tuesday, the electorate will vote and decide: either for “volatile and impulsive,” or for “steady and reasoned.” We can only hope that by the election process we, the people of the United States, will in return receive a measure of intelligence and of “good government.”