This week Newton Gingrich has become the Republican Party Presidential primary candidate best positioned to beat front-runner Mitt Romney. Before he was a politician Newt was a History Professor. President Obama was a Law Professor before he became a politician. When you look at the history of American Presidents, college professor is not a very common occupation. The other exception was Woodrow Wilson, who was a professor of Political Economy at Princeton.
While Newt has not been, and may not be President, he did hold what I believe should be a more important office, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (from 1995 to 1999).
There is a saying that if you can't do, teach, but teaching is an important human activity. College professors also usually do some research and writing. How good is that as preparation to be President of the United States of America?
Woodrow Wilson served as President of the United States from 1913 until the beginning of 1921. Before that he served as governor of New Jersey from 1911. He is typically portrayed as a progressive President who also showed his spine by siding with the British Empire and the French Empire against Germany in World War I.
While Wilson did support some needed reforms like women's right to vote, on the whole he was a romantic reactionary. Most notably, he was a racist. When he ran for President in 1912, as a Democrat he could depend on the "Solid" racist, south, where Negroes (a respectful term then) were not allowed to vote. He made campaign promises to Negro voters in northern states, gaining many of their votes. Then he presided over segregation of the federal government, even instructing Post Offices to set up racially segregated windows to serve customers. He also fired most black federal employees and appointed white southerners in the places.
In other words, although Wilson was able to break with the past on some issues, his mind was not unusually far ranging. He lectured the nation and Congress, but all too often his lectures had no basis in human experience. I would argue that Wilson was a disaster, and that disaster echoed through the 20th century, adversely affecting not just Americans, but people around the globe.
For instance Woodrow Wilson thought no one should drink alcohol. Is that progressive or conservative? He refused to serve it at the White House, and on January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, making "intoxicating liquors" illegal throughout the United States. Certainly consumption of alcohol has some bad effects. But Prohibition did not stop the flow of alcohol. Instead it created black markets and attendant crime and political corruption. Just like Barack Obama's attacks on medical marijuana clinics are doing today.
Imperialism was a big issue in the 1912 elections. The United States had become an imperialist system in the late 1800's. Both Democratic Party farmers (the nation was not yet mainly urban) and reformers were against imperialism, and candidate Wilson said anti-imperialistic things, just as Barack Obama would hint he was an anti-war, anti-defense spending candidate in 2008. But Wilson invaded more nations that any other President, not even counting World War I. He invaded Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Mexico. For good measure he bought the Virgin Islands. In the super-hypocrisy department he signed the Jones Act in 1916, which promised independence to the Philippines. The Philippines did not get independence until the Japanese granted it to them during World War II.
For Wilson the idea was more important than the deed. Because he thought the South should have won the Civil War, he supported the idea of what we would now call national autonomy. Back then it was called national self-determination. But, after World War I, when the Japanese asked that Asia be de-colonized, Wilson vetoed that idea. Self-determination, he made clear, was for white people, not subhumans, which is how he regarded non-white ethnic groups. This insult to the Japanese and the people of Asia would result in the disintegration of China, a number of colonial wars, World War II, and then more colonial wars, ending only when the British Empire, a bastion of autocratic governance unparalleled in history, ceded Hong Kong back to the nation of China.
Barack Obama, too, is better at speaking than at getting things done. That is probably a good thing, considering the blow back the U.S. is getting from his attempts to boss around Islamic people. If Barack does not get a second term, at least his acts are unlikely to cause as much damage in the 21st century as President Wilson did in the 20th.
Which brings us to Newt Gingrich. If you compare Newt to Wilson or Obama, he is clearly the more competent guy. Even though I disagree with his policies, his strategy and tactics in the 1990's were brilliant.
The problem with Newt is not that he does not know history. I grant him a knowledge of history. His problem is that his mind filters out all the facts that do not match his pre-determined conclusions about how America and the world should be governed.
He has not even learned the lesson of the Great Depression, and a whole string of forgotten depressions earlier in U.S. and world history: capitalism destroys itself, left unchecked. Another lesson: too much concentration of wealth leads to poorly performing national economies. Another lesson: empires that spend too much on their militaries suffer economic collapse.
I am forced to conclude that electing former professors to be President is not, in general, a good idea. There could be exceptions, of course, but neither Mr. Gingrich nor President Obama is one of them.