James Q. Wilson is no more, and the conservative intellectual establishment has suffered a terrible loss. While Professor Wilson is and will continue to be justly remembered and celebrated for his impressive and important body of scholarship, he has also served another key role over the last four decades—as an adviser to every Republican president since Richard Nixon.
Wilson actually served the Johnson White House before ever helping out a Republican president, serving as chairman of the White House Task Force on Crime in 1966. As Wilson himself noted, he voted for JFK, LBJ, and even did some work for Hubert Humphrey in 1968. Democrats have long had legions of academics on their side, though, and it was Wilson’s service to Republican presidents that really distinguished him in this arena.
Pat Moynihan, White House intellectual under Nixon, was the first to bring Wilson into the Republican White House fold. Moynihan continually urged Nixon to develop a cadre of intellectuals and artists on the Republican side of the aisle. As he told Nixon, “Nobody defends us.” While the Democratic Moynihan was happy to help with this effort, he also felt that the bulk of the work “need[ed] to be done by real Republicans.” One of the thinkers Moynihan hoped to cultivate for this role was Wilson, whom he brought in as an “unlikely guru” to brief the president. Moynihan was quite a fan of Wilson. According to a recent article in The American, he once told Nixon, “Mr. President, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.”
The Ford White House, under the direction of White House intellectual Bob Goldwin, had a more organized effort to bring in outside thinkers to brief the president, and Wilson was one of those thinkers. Goldwin organized one particular dinner for Ford with Wilson, Daniel Boorstin, and Martin Diamond. When Press Secretary Ron Nessen described the event to the press, he joked that the president would be having a working dinner “with three distinguished scholars, or four if you count me.”
While many intellectuals would have reveled in the press attention this kind of announcement from the podium would have garnered, Wilson was more circumspect. He asked Goldwin if he found the resulting “stories in Time and Newsweek as troublesome as do I?” From Wilson’s modest—and wise—perspective, the president would get the most benefit from these kinds of briefings if “those participating in them … feel that they can speak with utmost candor.” Goldwin also personally gave a copy of Wilson’s 1974 Commentary article, “Crime and the Criminologists“—one of dozens of ground-breaking pieces he wrote for Commentary—to Ford in preparation for the dinner.
Of all the presidents with whom he worked, Wilson probably had the greatest affinity for and connection with Ronald Reagan, even becoming the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine—a title he no doubt appreciated. Wilson recognized Reagan’s political potential early on, writing an essay called “A Guide to Reagan Country” in Commentary. According to Tom Wolfe, “Wilson was the first writer to sense the power of Reagan’s constituency as it spread out of Southern California and up through the West, completely changing our politics.” Wilson also had two of his most public advisory roles in the Reagan administration, serving as a member of the attorney general’s Task Force on Violent Crime in 1981, and as a member of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board beginning in 1985.
In the late 1990s, Wilson was one of a handful of outside advisers who helped George W. Bush develop his “compassionate conservative” platform. John DiIulio, a Wilson student and subsequent collaborator, served as the first director of Bush’s Faith-Based Office. Bush later awarded Wilson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, a well-deserved honor.
Wilson’s great advantage to conservatives was that he was both comfortable in and respected by the mainstream intellectual establishment, but he had a healthy skepticism of it as well. Once, Goldwin recalled pointing out a New York Times editorial on crime to Wilson, noting that he knew that “Wilson makes it a practice not to read the New York Times editorials (‘for the sake of his health.’)” Peggy Noonan noted that Wilson was Reagan’s kind of intellectual, since both Reagan and Wilson—along with Irving Kristol, Nat Glazer, and George Will—thought most American intellectuals “were among the most brilliant stupid people who had ever lived.”
Although Wilson’s written works will long live on, it is a shame that our next Republican presidents, whenever they may serve, will not be able to benefit from the personal wisdom and guidance of James Q. Wilson.