What Has Become of The Scholar-Statesman?

The public’s attitude towards its elected officials, presidents, and presidential candidates, has shifted away from respect and healthy disagreement. Likewise, the attitude of elected officials, and by extension, presidential candidates, has shifted away from powerful idealism to perpetual campaigning.

John F. Kennedy’s fascination with intellectualism and representative bravery led him to pen his 1956 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage. Kennedy noticed a disparity between the politicians who embraced and made use of scholarship, and the politicians who resisted and loathed scholarship. In doing so, he invoked names still revered: John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Sam Houston, among others.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. captured Kennedy’s anxiety in his 1965 pseudo-memoir, A Thousand Days, John F. Kennedy in the White House, “…the gap between the intellectual and politician seems to be growing…today this link is all but gone. Where are the scholar-statesmen? The American politician of today is fearful, if not scornful, of entering the literary world with the courage of a Beveridge. And the American author and scholar of today is reluctant, if not disdainful, about entering the political world with the enthusiasm of a Woodrow Wilson.”

The sea change to which Kennedy alludes is addressed in Profiles in Courage: The reluctance to lose favorable opinion in the face of controversial decisions, coupled with a disdain to immerse and learn policy and eloquence, was a recipe undeserving of the American people. Today’s politicians would rather be forgotten in the history books, than to be brilliant and caring in their public service.

John Kenneth Galbraith also assessed the unfortunate outlook in his 1958 book, The Affluent Society. “These are the days when men of all social disciplines and all political faiths seek the comfortable and the accepted; when the man of controversy is looked upon as a disturbing influence; when originality is taken to be a mark of instability; and when in minor modification of the scriptural parable, the bland lead the bland.”

Has the fire of political originality and optimism gone out? Have we become the bland leading the bland? Politicians driven by party talking points and over-the-top personal attacks reveal their lack of policy substance. Our representatives have forgotten the intellectualism and political forethought of their forebears. Partisan gridlock does not help the American people. Incendiary rhetoric aimed at a colleague does not help the American people. Caring and passionate public servants help the American people, and often times help comes from the bottom, not the top.

Perhaps the revolution lies with the rise of the scholar-stateswoman. Achieving a growing stake in House and Senate chambers, women provide rationality in an atmosphere regarded as just another Old Boys Club, just another echo chamber.

We often look to the past for inspiration, a past that provides examples of men and women who stood up, some to overwhelming criticism, some to meager praise, all who pushed our country forward. Just as we remember those listed in Profiles in Courage, let us never forget those who set our path straight.

So let us work instead to disarm our differences, allowing not our differences to disarm our pursuit of progress. Let us strive to become scholar-statesmen and scholar-stateswomen, embracing an intellectual and passionate attitude, free from inertial tendencies.

As we look to the election in November, let us assess the candidates through the lens of Kennedy, Schlesinger, and Galbraith. Would they approve?