Ask Alma's Owl: Butler for President

December 29, 2015

Dear Alma,

Nicholas Murray Butler was active in Republican politics while he was Columbia’s president. Did he ever run for elective office?

— Political Player

Dear Political Player,

Butler was an influential national figure whose renown went well beyond Columbia’s gates. He was a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, who gave him the nickname Nicholas Miraculous and urged him to run for New York governor in 1900. Butler demurred, saying that running a university “is a public service that goes way ahead of being governor of a half dozen states.”

Butler played a small part in the 1912 election, a three-way race between Taft, Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson (himself a former president of Princeton.) Taft’s vice president, James Sherman, died six days before Election Day. After the election was over, Butler was chosen to receive Sherman’s Republican electoral votes, making him technically—and briefly—a vice presidential candidate.

In 1920, Butler made an effort to win the presidency itself. With Wilson leaving office, the GOP had such a strong chance of winning that “a wooden man would have been elected president this year on the Republican ticket,” Butler later said.

Butler wanted to appear as though he was not seeking higher office even while preparing to do so. He ran a stealth campaign and did not enter primaries as a way of remaining above the fray, formally announcing his run for president in December 1919.

The campaign slogan was “Pick Nick for a Picnic in November,” an attempt to present the patrician Butler as a man of the people. Another slogan, “Butler Means Business” sought to de-emphasize his academic background.

It didn’t help much. At the 1920 Republican National Convention, held in Chicago, Butler received 69½ votes on the first ballot, almost all from New York delegates. Kentucky gave him one delegate and Texas a mere half-delegate.

Three ballots later, Butler had only 20 votes of the 493 required to win. Politicians in a smoke-filled room subsequently chose Warren Harding, partly because, said one of his backers, “he looked like a president.”

As for Butler, after the election “there remained only the need to deny that he had ever been interested in the presidency in the first place,” writes Michael Rosenthal, a Columbia lecturer in comparative literature and author of Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler. He remained Columbia’s president until 1946, after a remarkable 44 year tenure, and died in 1947.

— By Gary Shapiro

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