What both political parties need now is a Charles Evans Hughes.
It is not a familiar name today, as it once was, but it should be.
As Republicans fret over how to unify themselves despite Post-Trump Stress Disorder and as Democrats worry that Thinking Big Biden will tax and spend them into an economic black hole, the party that locates the next Hughes will prosper. And so will the country.
Who’s Hughes, you say? Not just an old white guy with a luxurious silver beard. Barely remembered today and without a decent biography, Hughes almost won the 1916 presidential election over Woodrow Wilson, and why he didn’t is telling.
With one more campaign trip to California and a mere 3,773 more votes there, he would have defeated Wilson even though he had had to reunite a Republican Party splintered four years earlier by Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party candidacy. But unlike Wilson, who ran on the slogan “He has kept us out of war,” Hughes was unwilling to mislead the public by implying he’d keep the country out of World War I.
What marked Hughes for greatness and a model for today’s political leaders was brains, self-control, and adherence to principle rather than political pandering. He would go on to serve as one of the two best chief justices of the Supreme Court and one of the three best secretaries of state, where he distinguished himself by securing the world’s first international disarmament agreement.
Hughes wasn’t glamorous or charismatic. Roosevelt ridiculed him as the “bearded iceberg.” But the public saw and admired his character, not his palaver. Indeed, a 1935 New Yorker article said of him: “Tourists throng to sessions of the Court. They gaze respectably at Chief Justice Hughes and carry home word that he is one of the best sights in Washington – comparable to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.”
Hughes’s entry into politics began when, as a successful Wall Street lawyer, he received a surprise call to head a 1905 investigation of the inflated rates set by gas and electricity trusts in New York. On the strength of that success, he was asked to investigate insurance companies, whose executives enriched themselves at the expense of policy holders and also used policy holders’ money to support politicians. Although powerful Republicans advised him not to go so far, he revealed large insurance company contributions to Roosevelt’s presidential campaign fund.
From that sensational pair of outcomes, Hughes went on to be a popular, two-term reform governor of New York. President Taft subsequently appointed him an associate justice of the Supreme Court. He resigned the position when the Republicans nominated him to run for the White House in 1916.
Hughes returned to private law practice after his defeat but remained engaged in politics – on one dramatic occasion showing his true colors as a man of principle. When the New York State Assembly refused in 1920 to seat five duly elected assemblymen because they were socialists, the Republican Hughes took it on himself to write to the Assembly speaker, “This is not, in my judgment, American government.” Hughes chaired a state bar committee seeking a reversal. He failed, but as constitutional scholar Zechariah Chafee noted, the action “made the conservative press and sober citizens realize the absurdity of the Red Menace.”
As chief justice, Hughes wrote the landmark 5-4 decision in Near v. Minnesota, the foundational First Amendment decision of American history. It ruled unconstitutional a state law allowing public officials to punish and censor any publication they saw as “malicious” or “scandalous.”
It would have been hugely politically popular for Hughes to uphold the Minnesota law; the scurrilous rag under attack was as horrible as any online trash today. But Hughes wrote broadly that no prior restraint of news by the government could be permitted unless it revealed crucial military information during wartime, contained obscenity, or directly incited violence.
Hughes could shrewdly combine principle with good political judgment. When FDR over-reached with his court-packing plan in 1936, Hughes skillfully drained away enthusiasm for the plan by having the court uphold the constitutionality of some New Deal laws in ways that also preserved constitutional principles.
Americans’ abiding love for the democratic principles that undergird our nation give leaders who harness themselves to those principles a special, powerful appeal. Presidents Truman and Reagan knew the public’s perception of them as men of principle was critical to their success.
The nation will be much better off if the next generation of successful politicians discovers that too. These leaders will win elections and help restore a sense of confidence in our democratic system. As Hughes said on the eve of becoming chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1930, “The question is no longer one of establishing democratic institutions but of preserving them.”