The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler
by Michael Rosenthal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 544 pp., $35
IN MY YOUTH, I was elected editor-in-chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator and, as such, I met several times with Nicholas Murray Butler, the redoubtable president of Columbia University, in his office in the Seth Low Library, behind the famed Alma Mater statue.
At our first meeting in the winter of 1933, a jovial Dr. Butler began the conversation by telling me he had just returned from giving a speech in Toronto. After his speech, a clergyman approached him with a question: He had heard that there were Columbia faculty members who did not believe in Jesus Christ. Would Butler please give the names of the disbelievers to the inquiring cleric so that he could write urging them to return to Christ? Butler told me he then listed three names: Meyer Schapiro, Irwin Edman, and Lionel Trilling. All three distinguished professors were, of course, Jews.
We both laughed. Years later, in a belated esprit d'escalier, I thought that perhaps it might have been more seemly had Butler said he did not inquire of his faculty's religious beliefs. Perhaps he was telling me, only the second Jew to be elected to the Spectator editorship, that some of his best faculty members were Jews.
This biography by a Columbia historian will have great appeal to anyone who attended Columbia during the reign, which it most certainly was, of Nicholas Miraculous. What the biography suffers from is limited re-search about the Columbia years. For some reason, the author makes a glancing reference to the amazing one-day student/faculty strike over the expulsion (by Dean Herbert E. Hawkes on April 1, 1932) of the then-editor of the Spectator, Reed Harris. Harris was later targeted as a putative Communist by Joe McCarthy, and so lost his executive post in the Voice of America. (This being the Year of the Edward R. Murrow Apotheosis, I should point out that, as soon as President John F. Kennedy appointed Murrow head of the USIA in 1961, Harris was reinstated as Murrow's deputy.)
I, too, as a Columbia senior, was almost expelled because of my editorials in the Spectator criticizing Butler for some of his political positions. As editor of the college daily, I had a weekly one-on-one, off-the-record conference with Dean Hawkes. Phone calls were normally banned during our meeting, but not this time. The instrument was an old-fashioned stick phone and the voice coming through the earpiece was clearly audible to me, just a few feet away from the Dean. The voice was that of Butler himself, and I could hear every word.
"Call in Beichman and tell him that if he keeps up his attacks on me, he'll be expelled," he declared.
"Yes, I will, Dr. Butler," replied Hawkes.
Then, having safely hung up the phone, Hawkes, recalling the 1932 imbroglio over the Reed Harris affair, said with a faint smile, "If there are going to be any more Spectator expulsions, he'll have to do it himself." And we continued our meeting.
It's easy to understand Butler's irritation. Here he was, a renowned international statesman, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt and admirer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, his counsel sought by prime ministers and other potentates. As Columbia's president he had turned a mediocre institution into a world-class research university. Instead of recognizing these achievements, here was this cockamamie campus newspaper daring to criticize him because he opposed an amendment to the Constitution that would have barred child labor.
Little of this history is to be found in Rosenthal's biography, since he seems to have depended almost entirely on documents and the printed record. Omitted is how Butler made it luminously clear to Columbia's anti-Semitic English Department that he wanted Lionel Trilling to get tenure and not be sent packing. He invited Lionel and Diana Trilling to a formal dinner at the president's sumptuous residence, and the department got the message. What had impressed Butler was Trilling's biography of Matthew Arnold.
Of course, while a biography has to be a detailed curriculum vitae, it must also necessarily look inside the man. Butler, who served from 1902 to 1945, was not your ordinary university president; in fact, he was in a class by himself. True, Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Columbia president (from 1948 until his election in 1952) but he was an in-and-outer, for whom the university presidency was a form of maquillage intended to turn him into a civilian en route to a higher presidential office. (The cosmetician was Henry Cabot Lodge.)
The author raises an interesting question: "The formidable 'Dr. Butler' of the first half of the twentieth century, the man described by the New York Times at his death as 'one of the best known Americans of his generation the world over,' earned instant oblivion in the second half." And it isn't hard to understand why he became a "splendid anachronism," to use the author's epithet. Butler left nothing behind other than oracular pronouncements that dated the moment they were uttered. (They are collected in a volume titled Looking Forward: What Will the American People Do About It? Essays and Addresses on Matters National and International.) In 1930, for example, he deplored the state of world affairs--"midgets in the seats of the mighty"--but it became apparent in a few years that Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini were hardly midgets.
Final verdict: If you were a Columbia student during the Butler incumbency, you'll be much interested in this biography. If you weren't, ask yourself how many of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets you have read.
Arnold Beichman is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.