A highly readable exhumation of the career of Nicholas Murray Butler, president of the Carnegie Endowment and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and almost entirely forgotten today.
Once upon a time in America, the opinions and prescriptions of college presidents seriously mattered. To the list of Harvard's Eliot, Princeton's Wilson and Chicago's Hutchins, add Columbia's Butler, who over the course of four decades transformed a provincial college in Morningside Heights into a world-class university. Rosenthal (English/Columbia Univ.) admirably chronicles this achievement, while at the same time exposing Butler's thinly veiled anti-Semitism, his overblown reputation as a fundraiser and his autocratic governance, which stifled all student dissent and drove off not a few fine faculty members. Hugely ambitious, hen-pecked and emotionally guarded, Butler appears truly to have loved only his daughter more than himself and the school he came to embody. From Columbia's bully pulpit and through an admixture of relentless self-promotion, friendships with great men (Carnegie, Teddy Roosevelt) and some genuine political talent of his own, Butler emerged as the model of conventional wisdom among the Republican, WASP, internationalist establishment of the first half of the 20th century. A caricature of Samuel Johnson's clubbable man (Butler's honors, awards, memberships and associations were endless), he helped shape his party's direction and the country's agenda. Most notably, through his promotion of the Kellogg-Briand Pact, he nudged the world. When the applause subsided, however, almost all his exertions outside the kingdom of Columbia amounted to little. Rosenthal shines in demonstrating how the winner of so many of life's glittering prizes should end up, for the most part, an index entry in the biographies of greater men.
It would roil Butler's immense ego to learn that—not 60 years after his death—this well-crafted study is even necessary.