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An Intellectual in Full

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

In a contemporary political scene characterized by disruptive, shallow, and contempt-laden vitriol, Robert Goldwin’s approach to civilized discourse will be sorely missed.

Robert A. Goldwin was a distinguished scholar of the American Constitution and founding period. He maintained that the founders were peculiarly indebted for their theoretical underpinnings to the English philosopher John Locke, who inspired Goldwin’s earliest academic work as a student of Leo Strauss. Goldwin crowned his career with an account of the drafting and ratification of Bill of Rights at the hands of James Madison.

Throughout his writing, Goldwin, along with colleagues Martin Diamond, Herbert Storing, and Walter Berns, insisted that the founding be understood in light of its roots in modernity. In this view, the American regime was able to survive and flourish thanks to the founders’ skillful arrangement of government institutions and human passions, which produced a moderate and decent democratic politics rooted in the otherwise unpromising soil of self-interest and ambition.

But Goldwin’s true gift was his ability to provoke lively, balanced, and enlightening discussions and debates about major public issues, pushing slowly beyond the first, superficial expressions of opinion to deeper reflections on the political and human truths lying beneath. Only this sort of vigorous Socratic exchange, he believed, could lead to genuine learning.

Goldwin’s true gift was his ability to provoke lively, balanced, and enlightening discussions and debates about major public issues.

This was reflected in his lifelong service to and love for St. John’s College in Annapolis. It gave rise to a splendid collection of essays sponsored by the Public Affairs Conference Center at Kenyon College, each of which contained eight to ten essays approaching important questions from a wide range of disciplines, experience, and points of view. The collection How Democratic Is America?, for instance, tackled the central question the New Left had raised about this nation in the late ’60s and ’70s, and included vigorously conflicting essays by Howard Zinn, Sidney Hook, Walter Berns, Harry Clor, and Allan Bloom. (Ironically, for many years, it was also the sole print source of extensive excerpts from the New Left’s manifesto “The Port Huron Statement.”)

Finally, his devotion to thoughtful discussion marked the most public phase of his career, as an advisor to President Gerald Ford, indeed, as Ford’s “resident intellectual.” True to the St. John’s method, he held a series of dinners at the White House, where he would seek to deepen and broaden the president’s understanding of an issue by having it thrashed out before him by a handful of leading intellectuals, coming at it from a variety of viewpoints.

He held a series of dinners at the White House, where he would seek to deepen and broaden the president’s understanding of an issue by having it thrashed out before him by a handful of leading intellectuals.

I experienced the Goldwin approach as his first assistant on the American Enterprise Institute’s “A Decade of Study of the Constitution,” which he launched immediately after leaving the White House. (Art Kaufman and Robert Licht would subsequently serve in that role.) This ten-year project leading up to the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution in 1987 produced more substantial collections of essays, each of which probed a fundamental controversy about our founding document.

For each topic, Goldwin expected from me an exhaustive bibliographic essay laying out all the respectable points of view on the topic, with suggestions about which proponents could give us their clearest and deepest expressions. From this, we commissioned four essays that would become the focus of a two-and-a-half day private seminar.

A select group—not only of academics but of interested public figures as well—were invited to each seminar, with the expectation that what they learned would be conveyed to the wider audiences they commanded. Then-Congressman Dick Cheney told me at one such conference that he always accepted Goldwin’s invitation, because he invariably found the seminars useful and engaging. Based on the conference’s discussion, we would then go on to complete the list of authors with a view to arguments we had perhaps overlooked the first time through.

We didn’t rest until we had commissioned the most hard-hitting, potent Marxist critique of the Constitution we could find.

Although Goldwin clearly had his own point of view about each topic, he resolutely insisted that the tables not be tilted to favor one position over another—only that each receive its most penetrating and instructive formulation. Our first volume, for instance, posed the question, “how democratic is the Constitution?” in order to confront Charles Beard’s immensely influential view that the Constitution was not at all democratic, but was rather designed to protect the property interests of the wealthy against the restive masses. We invited one prominent neo-Marxist historian to give us his version of that view, but were somewhat disappointed at the dry, restrained, academic essay he submitted. We didn’t rest until we had commissioned the most hard-hitting, potent Marxist critique of the Constitution we could find.

Why publish essays reflecting such hostility to our fundamental principles? By the 1970s, such views were commonplace on American campuses, and were being passed on without serious challenge to generations of undergraduates. The Goldwin volumes sought to make those views controversial again, understanding that the most thoughtful students and teachers are invariably drawn to intellectually stimulating controversy, and would find a balanced and lively debate far more interesting and instructive than one-sided didacticism.

Even those who were not to be swayed from a radically critical view of the American political system would go away from the volumes knowing that deeply thoughtful arguments were available on both sides. As in his seminars and conversations, readers on campuses and within the informed public would be drawn into a circle of thoughtful and respectful give and take, a true conversation that would generate the sort of mutual citizenly regard and forbearance necessary for the preservation of liberal democracy. In a contemporary political scene characterized by disruptive, shallow, and contempt-laden vitriol, Goldwin’s approach to civilized discourse will be sorely missed.

William A. Schambra is the director of the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal.

FURTHER READING: In "Tribute to Robert A. Goldwin, 1922–2010," Donald Rumsfeld commemorates his friend and colleague. Lynne Cheney wrote "Remembering Bob." And, late last year, Christopher DeMuth remembered another AEI friend, Irving Kristol, in "The Practical Liberal," while Leslie Lenkowsky recognized his legacy as "The End of Giving 'Til It Hurts." 

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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