The Bad Man Trick
I suppose it is possible, however unlikely, for a man who insists that he's bad to be as bad as he insists he is. Hutchins hyperbolized his badness—but he didn't invent it. He was a bad man by the token that all men are bad, but more to the point is his lifelong pursuit of a calling that required and rewarded bad things, day in and day out, that good might come of it.
So it was the job, not the man, that was wicked, and the wickedness of the man was nothing worse than vanity. Not so; it was the man, and vanity was the least of his vices. "A university president should spend his time on education and scholarship. Actually he spends his time like other business executives and is judged like them by his balance sheet and his public relations." "He has to try to find people who are better than he is and get the credit for what they do. . . . So act—the neo-Kantian Categorical Imperative which guided my life—to gain the maximum of credit with a minimum of work." "All college presidents are liars. If they weren't they couldn't be college presidents. They lie because their lives must in the nature of things be a series of compromises." "A lifetime"—he was characterizing his own—"devoted to money-raising." "Everyone should take a look at the way I behaved, and do the opposite." "I have a bad character and therefore a good reputation." "If I am so great as you say, why haven't I been able to stop smoking?"
"Without listing the full panoply of my vices, I may refer to the one most pertinent here, which was vanity." On many another occasion he proclaimed himself variously a model of indolence, disorganization, negligence, impatience, stubbornness, and impetuosity.
"Do you have any redeeming features?" "I refer you to Shakespeare: 'What a man hath his tailor made him.'" "Bill Benton knew you longer and better than anyone but Thornton Wilder, and he once said, 'Bob's
difficulty is that he's so enormously critical of himself and not critical enough of others, so he's overly generous with his friends and associates and puts all the blame on himself if anything goes wrong.'" "Bill is an overly generous man."
Hutchins did not enjoy being somebody else's scapegoat. What he enjoyed was being his own. Having the trick down pat meant not merely claiming to be a bad man but being able to prove it. Whoever agreed with him that he was a bad man—I never knew anyone who did—was finessed as he recited the litany of his selective sins. Whoever disagreed with him smiled. Whoever disagreed with him and watched him in action smiled and admired. The Bad Man Trick is a good trick. And there is nobody to the trick better born than a resurfaced Presbyterian.
And the reforms he undertook at Chicago? "We didn't know enough to know that you weren't supposed to do those things." Forty years later his competence as president of the Center for Democratic Institutions was just as deplorable: "I have to learn more than anybody else around here because my associates have spent their lives in the intensive study of basic disciplines. One characteristic of a lifetime of administration is that you become excessively superficial. You have to make a lot of decisions very rapidly on the basis of totally inadequate knowledge; I made most of my decisions at the University of Chicago on the basis of snap impressions. How could I deal intelligently with a professor of archaeology, or of astronomy, or of anthropology—subjects I'd never studied? I had to do it on the basis of my judgment of the man not on my knowledge of the discipline. The notion that a university president is in some way a learned man is absurd. You may—I say 'may'—become an experienced man in judging men. But you never learn anything."
There is nothing harder on the character than fifty years or so of continuous wear and tear. The frustration and the fury never flared and never diminished. It was steady, it was persistent, it was cumulative. Its genesis was not the blockheadedness of the professors, which he ridiculed in public. It was not his domestic misery which, without confessing it, he let be known to an ever widening circle of whisperers. Its genesis was his calling itself. He was an educator, but education was not his calling. He was an administrator, but administration was not his calling. His calling was mendicancy.
His calling compelled him to caginess in his every relationship. He had to be armed with the secret lowdown on everyone with whom he had to do (or had to want to do) business. His files were crammed with dossiers, and his head with gossip that was more revealing than the dossiers. He had to know just how much this man had to give (no matter what the man him-
self said) and how he gave it and why he gave it and how he was most effectively approached; what his (and his wife's) fancies and phobias were, what was to be spoken of and what not. He had to know—he knew that Epstein, Eckstein, Smith, Jones, and Robinson were rich—that whoever called Epstein Epstein (rather than Epsteen) would never get another appointment with Epstein; that Eckstein hit the ceiling if anybody called him Ecksteen; that Smith did not like Jews (no matter how they pronounced their names); that Jones knew, from personal experience, that Negroes were ineducable; and that Mrs. Robinson on one martini would address Hutchins' friend Cardinal Mundelein as the Whore of Babylon.
This was what money-raising meant. And what being the chief executive of a great corporation meant wasn't all that different. With few exceptions the faculty members needed more money, or thought they needed more money, or thought they deserved more money—in a word, wanted more money. Was it or wasn't it true that Professor A had inherited money, or that Professor B's wife had money, or that Professor C had made a killing in real estate? Was Professor E worth the money he was getting now, and was it worth more to keep him? Was Professor F's recommendation from his department head based on their being bridge partners, or on Professor F's appreciation of the head's own research, or on the head's spite against Professor G (who along with Professor F was a candidate for the available wage raise)?
How could all this day-in-and-night-out finagling, dissembling, and lying—"All college presidents are liars"—be other than morally debilitating, the more so since all of it was both honorable and honored? It was the expected and respectable essence of his calling.
His lot was the dreary lot of the used car lot, except that he could not even deliver the junker. He could not promise that the product would ever be produced. He was a salesman of the farthest vistas, and in order to sell them he had to oversell them. Money, and money alone, was Hutchins' nexus with nearly all of the people with whom he spent nearly all of his time outside his office (and most of the time within it). He called them his friends, dedicated his books to them, delivered funeral orations over them, and, always polite, perhaps because they might cough up still more, perhaps because he had come to be comfortable with them, he continued his vapid association with them even after he had got their money.
The walking consequence of such a career, pursued from the occupational cradle to the grave, was, besides a frustrated and furious man, a great compromiser who made uncompromising noises of a crafted character; an immensely secretive man who, speaking openly, sharply, and memorably of trade secrets in general, was careful to tell no tales out of
school or in it; a narrator of his own corruption (and that delightfully narrated) with never a clue to the identity of his corruptors or his reasons for abiding the process; a querulous establishmentarian, true, in the pinches, to the canons of the establishment he served as gadfly.
He could not have been a trial lawyer; manners, and not just morals, were involved, and his manners were inadequate to the pretense (and pretensions) of the courtroom. Temperamentally impelled to controversy and its provocation, he was temperamentally repelled by ad hominem conflict. His was the most civil of facades. His disputatious posture simply crumbled in the face of acrimony. For almost twenty years he was engaged in torrid debate with the notably irascible John Dewey—on paper; he persistently rejected his friends' suggestion that he challenge his adversary to a face to face exchange. He would not, if he could help it, have it out with a peer across the desk, and I never knew him to reprimand a subordinate. There were people in the direct line of his administrative duty who needed to be admonished, dressed down, or, in extremis, fired; he would dodge the first two treatments—"It doesn't do any good"—and almost invariably find a way to administer the third in writing. (Or dodge it , too. He once hired a needy fellow on my recommendation, one of what he called my cripples. When he informed me, a few weeks later, that the fellow was no good, I suggested that he give him a second telephone, a second secretary, and a bigger desk. He did as I suggested, and a few weeks later informed me that the fellow was still no good. But the fellow stayed on, and, unless he became a university president, I suppose he's still there. True, true—academe is, or then and there was, a little like that anyway.)
In his manipulation of the rich, his antiemotionalism served him similarly as a salubrious check on his impulse to honest indignation. Men who had money believed in the things he didn't believe in and disbelieved in. Once in a while the tension was too much for him and he let go with the passion of Oberlin. Attacking materialism as the ruin of education—this in a 1941 lecture—he plunged into an Oberlinesque polemic on the institution of property itself: "Since the earth was given to man and not to individual men, since man is a social animal with social responsibilities, one who acquires property beyond the needs of himself and his family must dedicate it to social purposes." The lecture was delivered at Louisiana State University—well out of earshot of LaSalle Street. But it was subsequently published and duly distributed in book form to the University of Chicago's trustees. One of them, the financier Frank McNair, chairman of the finance committee, read the remark and said, meaning "president" when he said "university": "If that is the kind of university we have, I don't want to be connected with it."
So Hutchins wasn't as bad as he said he was. In his time and (more particularly) place, he was peerless. No university president and no college president ever put his job in jeopardy as sharply and persistently as he did on issues that do not force themselves on a professional educator.
None ever spoke the way the thirty-three-year-old president of the University of Chicago spoke to the Young Democratic Clubs on June 27, 1932, a few days before the Democratic Convention in Chicago. His address opened with what may mildly be called a two-fisted denunciation of the Republican administration's "history of inaction, bias, and misrepresentation of the last four years." Its fiscal policy was simple: "Soak the poor." And now, in the depths of the depression, while workingmen and their families starved, it lay "recumbent on a featherbed of pious hopes," preaching "salvation by incantation." But was the Democratic Party, the traditional party of the people, any better? "The Democratic effort has been to convince erstwhile contributors to Republican campaign funds that the Democrats are just as safe as the Republicans, and perhaps a little safer. 'You need not worry,' Democratic leaders seem to have said. 'We have no ideas. We have no plans that will disturb you. We are just as conservative as the Republicans. In fact we aim to be indistinguishable from them.'" What was wanted was a "truly democratic program stated in unmistakable terms," a program that would call for tariff reduction, government regulation ("if necessary, government ownership") of monopolies natural and unnatural, immensely increased inheritance and income taxes (corporate and personal), government reform of banking ("if necessary elimination of private profit from banking"), farm allotments, unemployment and old age insurance, and a program of public works. His denunciation of Hooverism was so passionate and his proposals for a Democratic program so rabid—remember, this was 1932—that they were front-page news the country over. Nor did he ever temper any of them afterward.
So, too, in terms of war and peace, in terms of racial and religious restrictions on economic and social opportunity, in terms of civil liberties, civil rights, and intellectual and artistic freedom, no eminent figure of his time and place had a batting average to compare with his. For all his high-wire caginess in the timing and wording of most of his public statements, he left no one in doubt of his position on the sovereign issues of the day.
True, the higher learning was an easy league to look good in and even be good in. Had he quit the academic grove for the bare-knuckle business of politics—had he become the chief administrative officer of the United States, as it once appeared that he would—his principle of subordination might have compelled him to choose between resignation and, say, the
deportation of fellow Americans into concentration camps because of their "Japanese blood," or the atom bombing of an undefended city, or the attempt to assassinate a foreign head of state. Under those unhappy circumstances the principle might have been put to harder test, and courage have come costlier.
Bedeviled with so many urgent and monotonous demands on his everyday, he always had the excuse that he had no time to think. Back along about, oh, 1948, I sauntered into the president's office on a flimsy pretext and, having got the pretext out of the way, I said, "You know what you ought to do? You ought to take a year off." "And do what? Solve my personal problems?" He always referred to his domestic problems as his personal problems. "No," I said, "you should take a year off to sit and think. Aren't you in favor of thinking?" "I am in favor of thinking, but I never do it. If I accepted your advice I might find myself thinking about why I'm not a socialist, a pacifist, and a Christian. And that's what I don't want to do most." "You are," I said, "a man who never wearies of saying that 'nothing less than a moral, intellectual, and spiritual revolution can save mankind.'" "I am weary of saying it," he said, "but I admit I say it. I am too busy to do it." A quarter-century afterward I sauntered into his office in Santa Barbara, and reminded him what he'd said a quarter century before. "I was too busy then," he said, "and now I'm too busy and too old."
Beneath the humility he enjoyed professing was the arrogance of the Michelangelo who says, "I'm just a dauber." But beneath the arrogance in this case was an oppressive sense of his unworthiness. Accepted by everyone else, he could not accept himself. Contemptuous of others' high evaluation of him, he could not but have a contemptuous opinion of their capacity to evaluate. Ashamed of his contemptuousness, he spent his life listening politely, with fixed attention, to their inferior evaluations and their inferior insights and their inferior alibis. It takes a Calvinist to be despicable, but any fool of an atheist can be unworthy.
What Hutchins knew, he didn't know by virtue of intelligence. He was a lover not of wisdom, but of goodness; and not a possessor of it (any more than the philosopher is a possessor of wisdom, but only a lover of it). But the love of the good is itself a good, and the possessor of that love is to that extent a good man. The Bad Man Trick was a matter of manners, the Bad Man a man of morals.
He could always have quit doing what he was doing and do something else that was (or might be) less demoralizing. At Chicago the trustees understood that his resignation was on the table on more than one occasion, but on the table it remained for twenty-one years; the trustees who
knew him best calculated, rightly, that it was a bargaining chip he was likelier to display than to play. There were a dozen occasions when he might have resigned on principle, having failed to get his way. There was one occasion when he offered to—of that later—and another when he actually did (from, of all places, the board of the New York Stock Exchange).
In 1938 the president of the New York Stock Exchange, by name Richard Whitney, was sent to prison, and the exchange went through the motions of reform. Public hostility drove it to a demonstration of public fervor and it elected three public trustees, one of them President Hutchins of the University of Chicago. But it was common knowledge on the Street that Whitney had been an errand boy for J.P. Morgan and Company. "The Morgan interests," Harold Ickes wrote in his diary, "kept him there"—at the exchange—"apparently as long as he could serve them. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the depression, the Morgan people have extended their financial domination. Ordered to put a stop to the underwriting business of their bank, they have organized a separate company which is doing even more business than was done by the bank itself along this line. They control a number of banks in addition to their own as well as insurance companies and manufacturing concerns." Cyrus Eaton of Cleveland, the financial titan who supported Franklin Roosevelt, told Ickes that the appointment of Hutchins to the board of the exchange was "a good time to put the house of Morgan where it belongs, using the Richard Whitney incident as a lever."
Eaton was a trustee of the University of Chicago and, like Ickes, a friend of Hutchins. The next time Hutchins saw Roosevelt, who was trying to persuade him to take the chairmanship of the Securities and Exchange Commission, he said to the president, "Why don't you go after J.P. Morgan and Company?" (The president "turned green," Hutchins recalled afterward.) "The undisputed testimony," Hutchins told Roosevelt, "shows that there were two members of the [Morgan] firm who knew all about [Whitney's depredations]. . . . I don't want to prejudge the case, but I think that the connection ought to be investigated in view of the fact that you're stamping all over these minor crooks who have turned up." Roosevelt didn't act, and Hutchins brought, the issue to a meeting of the board of the exchange. The vote to investigate Morgan was defeated thirty-five to one, and the dissenting public member resigned on principle—with no loss of job or salary, and a great afflatus of reputation as a man of shining integrity. Roosevelt summoned him to Warm Springs and offered him the SEC again, and, when Hutchins turned it down again, the president said, "It would have been a wonderful joke on the New York Stock Exchange."
(On October 10, 1975—thirty-seven years later—the New York Times said, "Some of Wall Street's leading forces have started accepting the inevitability of reform [of the exchange]." But "the by-play over reform proposals has the earmarks of a diversionary or delaying maneuver.")
"Noble moments come and go," said Professor Carl Hermann of Marburg University after the Second World War. "It was a noble moment when I said I would not take the oath of loyalty to Hitler, but after thinking what it would mean to my political effectiveness if I stayed where I was, and, of course, to my family and my work, I went back the next day and took the oath. It was one of my ordinary days, as the day before had not been."
It may have been a noble moment when Hutchins offered to quit on principle and nobody picked up the offer. It was one of those fine fall evenings in Chicago, the wind cutting right through the bone, and we were standing on North Michigan Avenue, Hutchins, my wife, and I, outside one of his clubs, where he had taken us to dinner. We were preparing to go our separate ways, we to the South Side, he to the downtown hotel where he was hiding. He was hiding because he had recently walked out of the President's House and did not want to talk to his wife or to reporters about his wife (then or ever thereafter).
He had just completed a year's leave of absence from his job—a leave taken with the intention or, rather, illusion, of figuring out what to do about his domestic life. He had not figured it out, and he should not have been surprised that he hadn't. His Presbyterian objection to his situation at home was not, of course, that he had suffered—only that it had kept him from doing his work. (Though he told a friend, long afterward, "I worked in order to keep my mind off my domestic problems, so I ought to have been thankful—or ought I?") During his year's leave he had let his pal Bill Benton, publisher of the Chicago-based Encylopaedia Britannica, pay him twenty-five thousand dollars as chairman of its board of editors. Now he was back in the President's Office—and out of the President's House.
It was 1948, a fine fall evening.
The boss had got me an assistant professorship two or three years before, and while he was on leave I was due to come up for tenure. His vice-regents sent one of their factotums to see me first before he came back on the job. It was strongly suggested to me that I shift myself to something called the Great Books Foundation, a nationwide program of adult education that had grown up out of the Hutchins-Adler great books project at the university. The suggestion was almost plausible. I had been connected with the program both locally and nationally. The program needed me. The job had a title and a substantial wage raise. That I would be losing the
prospect of tenure at the university wasn't mentioned. Only passing reference was made to the fact that my not having a college degree would not be an obstacle in the new situation. I wasn't too proud to fight; I was just too tired. And so the president's Hired Hand was euchred out of the university.
The wind had been howling up North Michigan Avenue. Now it was shrieking. Time to buck it and go. "By the way," said the homeless president, "about the job business. You know who's been after you on the board, and you know that my associates were simply hatchet men. Not that they like you. Say the word, and I'll put my resignation on the table."
And he would have. He would do whatever he had to do.
A magnificent offer.
"Don't be crazy," I said.
It wasn't a magnificent offer at all. He knew that I would say, "Don't be crazy."
The Bad Man.