Part One - Jan 17:
Part Two - Jan 19:
Part Three - Jan 20:
Joseph J. Ellis is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. Among his previous books are Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams (1993) and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997), which won the National Book Award. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996).
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Atlantic Unbound | January 19, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
To: Joseph Ellis
From: James Fallows
Subject: Our Committee of Correspondence - Part Two
(I am trying for a salutation appropriate to our eighteenth-century subjects. How's this for a guess? Am I right in thinking that Adams and Jefferson began each dispatch with a simple "Dear Sir," even after the chill had worn off their relations?)
I have several reasons to be grateful for your first-round response. It elaborates some of the themes of the book, and it connects them to current events in a way that wouldn't have seemed appropriate in the book itself. It raises further questions, which I'd like to explore in this round and the next. And for readers who haven't yet gotten hold of Founding Brothers, it gives a useful and I think enticing sample of your cast of mind and the tone of your prose. So, thanks.
Now, the next round of questions. I'd like to begin with your line about Alexander Hamilton and the SATs. This immediately caught my eye, and for reasons other than its basic vividness. Back in the dim past I worked for Jimmy Carter, as his speechwriter. After doing so I published an article in The Atlantic, trying to explain why things seemed to be going so poorly for the President. Part of the puzzle of Carter's difficulties, as I understood them, involved his obvious intelligence. I said in the article that on any IQ- or SAT-style test of pure reasoning power, he would probably rank at or near the top of all Presidents. (The main competitors, as I thought but didn't write at the time, would be his fellow engineer Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon.) He could weigh the facts and assess the arguments with the best of them. But that didn't keep Congress on his side, or convince the public that he was a better choice than a man with more, umm, relaxed thinking habits—Ronald Reagan.
The point here may seem obvious: book smarts are different from street smarts, it's better to be governed by the first hundred names out of the phone book than the faculty of Harvard, and so on. (Also, since I've been such a fan of Hamilton's and his views of national destiny, I was disappointed to see him damned with the faint praise of being "SAT smart.") But the question I'm raising is, I think, a little different. You describe a cast of characters who, collectively, seem to possess most of the varying forms of intelligence we've come to recognize. Vision, tactical shrewdness, human intuition, moral sensibility, and so on. Despite their rivalries and differences they were able to combine these talents and guide the nation to independence and stability—outcomes that, as you show in the book, were nowhere near as inevitable as they seem in retrospect.
For obvious reasons it's harder now to draw on a wide array of talented leaders. The question, then, is how we should think about the talents our current leaders bring. It's an immediately relevant question because of the presidential transition now underway. The man about to leave the office may be as intellectually gifted as anyone who has been there in a very long time. I would even argue that he is more broadly intelligent, in the sense of having many different kinds of talents not usually present in the same person, than any other President I'm aware of. Clearly there are ways in which you can call Bill Clinton stupid, for the woes he brought upon himself (and us). But the evidence is that he'd give any past President a hard run in the reasoning-power department, while also having rhetorical skills, tactical cunning, person-to-person empathy, and other talents that don't always go with SAT success. Hillary Clinton is a sharper version of other graduates of Wellesley or Yale Law School. Bill Clinton is not like anyone else—with the goods and bads that come of that fact.
Our new President is something different. He makes no claim to SAT-style, Jeopardy-style, double-crosstic-style high intelligence. But clearly, on the basis of his popularity in the Texas government and within his party, he must have certain "emotional intelligence" skills, the ability to size up people and situations.
At last it's time to turn this into a question for you. You've chronicled probably the most talented collection of leaders the country has seen. (Next time, I'll come back to the question of whether they were "born great" or "made great," but not right now.) You're living through a transition from one style of political talent to a completely different style. And I ask you: How should we think about the role of "intelligence" in our political leaders? Does your study of the role of high intellectual talent make you prize it highly in today's leaders? Or is there some difference in the circumstances of the twenty-first century, versus those of the late eighteenth century, that makes you more suspicious of book-learnin' and SAT skills as valuable traits in today's leaders?
I have two more questions. One involves the Electoral College. Really, is there any good reason to bother with this any more?
I'm against the Electoral College, and have been since long before the current flap. Your book very clearly explains the balancing act among state interests—and between state and federal powers—that gave us the Electoral College and the U.S. Senate. I'm not against the existence of the U.S. Senate, by the way, but I do think that in principle it should be reapportioned. California now has sixty-five times as many residents as Wyoming, but each state has two senators? We'd consider this a rotten-borough system if it occurred somewhere else. Texas, to give an example with the opposite partisan twist, has thirty times as many people as Vermont. How about a range of, say, two to six senators per state, based on population brackets—or even letting the huge states divide in two or three? Maybe the standard could be no more than a ten-to-one imbalance in representation from most- to least-populated states. (I know, I know, this will never happen.)
Those same tensions between central and local power obviously remain in today's America. They are reflected in the rhetoric of every national election campaign. But allocating presidential votes state-by-state is a ridiculously crude and artificial way to represent the varied interests of modern America. I am now living in the San Francisco Bay area. The several million people also living here have a tremendous amount in common with those in the greater Seattle area, where I was last year—and very little in common with people in small-town inland California, where I grew up. Seattle and San Francisco have roughly similar ethnic makeups; industrial bases; environmental outlooks; urban problems. On all these measures they are significantly different from inland California—or eastern Washington State. Yet the Electoral College preserves the "integrity" of state interests by counting all the Washington votes in one barrel and all the California ones in another.
Why bother? Again, I know the system isn't going to change, since the many "rotten borough" states that would lose power through direct election could block the necessary amendment to the Constitution. But wouldn't it be a step to admit that it should change? To anticipate the argument that this would lead to neglect of small states in an election year: First, what about the neglect of big states now? If the three biggest states—California, Texas, and New York—were considered "not in play" in the 2000 election, is it fair to direct campaigning away from the 25 percent of all voters who live there? Also, what about small states that aren't in play? Hawaii always goes Democratic, and so does Rhode Island. The reverse for Wyoming and North Dakota. Rational candidates don't waste time there.
So in effect, the Electoral College penalizes big-state residents as a class (through under-representation); additionally penalizes big-state residents whose states aren't in play; does the same thing to residents of one-party small states (though it does over-weight their votes); and really only helps the voters of traditional swing states—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, now Florida. I have nothing against them, but the price seems high.
You have special standing in this argument, having studied the origin of the system. Can you make a case for it?
I had one other big question—but I've gone on so long that I have now decided to save it. It's the biggest issue of all—the connection among race, slavery, and the Union—but that will give us plenty to chew over next time.
Best wishes from the under-represented West Coast,
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