Political Scientist, Par Excellence
James Q. Wilson, 1931-2012.
Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
James Q. Wilson, a longtime teacher in the government department at Harvard, and an all-time political scientist, has died. He was a Californian who went to college at the University of Redlands, got his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, and then came to Harvard. At the end of his career, he went back home, taught at UCLA and Pepperdine, and with his wife Roberta, made a dream home in Malibu.
Wilson accepting the 2007 Bradley Prize
He was the most complete political scientist of his generation, always at the forefront, active in “the profession” and prominent in the university. His long list of books began with a study of the McGovernite phenomenon, The Amateur Democrat, and then a book—Negro Politics, in the nomenclature of the time—introducing the subject of ethnicity to the study of political science. He did not lead a life of crime, but he contributed several books to the study of crime and human nature, including a book on the FBI and another with the wonderful title Varieties of Police Behavior. He coauthored the famous theory of “broken windows”—arguing that law enforcement needed to be concerned with the details of orderliness and with preserving the appearance of a “good neighborhood.”
He wrote on political organizations and on bureaucracy, carrying these subjects beyond the traditional field of public administration by comparing public with private administration. While he was developing new specialties, he authored the best textbook on American Government, proving he could make money as well as find truth. At the end of his life, he turned away from the facts of politics to consider what they showed about the nature of morals, and wrote books on the moral sense and the notion of character.
Jim Wilson himself had a character that was inspiring yet persuasive. He was a fearless man who never needed to be fearless because he never took a false step. He had a strong heart, aided and somewhat concealed by his sovereign prudence and remarkable sang-froid. He never said a word that he later had to regret. No one was more conservative, but no conservative was ever more presentable than Wilson. In the late sixties, he saved Harvard from a time of turbulence and outrage, not all by himself but at the lead and from the top. In return, Harvard should have made him its president but did eventually reward him with an honorary degree.
His students and friends are legion. Above them all was his friend and mentor, the great Edward Banfield, a party of one that Jim joined—the kind of party he always preferred. From the day I met him, he was a friend for life, as useful with invaluable advice as he was company to be enjoyed. His wife Roberta was his high school sweetheart, a woman of verve and beauty, and his lifelong companion. They went deep-sea diving together and wrote a book, Watching Fishes.
This man was a professor and never really wanted to be more, but one always had the feeling that a little more love of the limelight would have made him president of anything, including the United States.
Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. This is adapted from remarks he delivered at a Harvard luncheon seminar, just hours after James Q. Wilson died on March 2.