A Gentleman and a Scholar
James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012
Mar 19, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 26 • By CHRISTOPHER DEMUTH SR.
I got up my nerve to introduce myself to James Q. Wilson when I was a Harvard junior casting around for a senior thesis topic. I approached his office in Harvard’s Littauer Center daunted and therefore well prepared. Littauer was then (1967) home to a dazzling array of pathbreaking thinkers and celebrity scholars, including Henry Kissinger, John Kenneth Galbraith, Samuel Huntington, Thomas Schelling, and Edward C. Banfield, with the ed school’s Daniel P. Moynihan a frequent visitor from just across the Cambridge Common. Wilson—at 36 the youngest full professor in the Department of Government—was already a standout in that company. He had been director of the MIT-Harvard Joint Center for Urban Studies for several years, and was emerging as a leading light of the Public Interest circle of intellectual revolutionaries. He had recently published, with Banfield, City Politics, recognized as a landmark of political analysis the day it appeared.
But I was interested in Wilson’s earlier books, Negro Politics and The Amateur Democrat, written when he was a newly minted Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. I had had some involvement in black politics (and, I hereby confess, community organizing) in Chicago, and wanted to use my experience as a “participant-observer” as the basis for my thesis. I would employ Wilson’s methods and typologies and extend his findings to a period when the trend he had identified in Negro Politics—the displacement of patronage politics by racial politics—had proceeded much further.
Jim was crisp and businesslike, hearing me out intently and responding with cordial criticism and several suggestions for further study. No, he could not be my thesis adviser—because he was already overcommitted, and anyway he wanted to be the faculty reader who would grade the thesis when it was done (gulp). As the interview was winding up, I managed to work in a few impressive analogies between his books and the works of earlier political scientists. “That’s right,” he concluded cheerfully as he ushered me to the door. “We don’t know much in this business—but what we do know, we keep repeating.”
That, I would come to learn, was quintessential
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