There’s a persistent legend that deaths of similarly situated famous people—actors, writers, political figures, etc.—come in threes. One of the persons who would have gone to the statistics to debunk this notion, social scientist James Q. Wilson, died today, just a day after Andrew Breitbart, and shortly after Christopher Hitchens. Like Hitchens and Breitbart, Wilson was unique and utterly irreplaceable.
I knew him slightly better than Breitbart, in his capacity as the chair of the board of academic advisers to AEI. We feted him at our chairman’s dinner back in December, during which George Will reminisced:
In his exasperation one day [Pat Moynihan] encountered Nixon in the hall of the White House and said, “Mr. president, James Q. Wilson is the smartest man in the United States. The president of the United States should pay attention to what he has to say.”
Nixon did. Not enough, the Lord knows, but he did pay some attention. James Q. Wilson’s name became sufficiently well-known to the Nixon reelection campaign that they solicited Jim’s name to be included on an ad—Democrats, I believe, for Nixon. I may be wrong; I take this from Moynihan’s letters. At this point, Jim Wilson was being considered for membership on a presidential commission on drug abuse, which he cared much about, and the president cared much about, and he wanted to have this.
But Jim said to this Nixon campaign apparatchik, he says, well, I might allow my name to be on that. In which case, of course, you would have to withdraw my name as a nominee to the drug panel and not consider me for any other position lest it seemed that my name is for sale. It was a kind of nicety not normally seen in Washington and probably unexpected on the part of the Nixon people, who were that not used to dealing with professors. . .
But wherever Republicans go, and certainly I feel the same way, we feel sooner or later we have a Robinson Crusoe experience. We look down and we see footprints in the sand of someone who’s there ahead of us, and it’s always James Q. Wilson. It’s very discouraging, frankly. The prescience of the man is astonishing, partly because, as I say, everything we’re arguing about today, he has argued already.
In his own remarks, Wilson struck a modest pose:
Let me turn to my own field, political science. In 2008, despite up-to-date polling, despite the results of countless debates, political scientists were persuaded that the candidates for the presidency would be Hillary Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani. There were two other people whom nobody spent any time talking about. Now, this is the background for people who try to guess about the future. It reinforces my view that the main role of a social scientist is not to predict the future but to explain what happened in the past.
My old thesis adviser, Edward C. Banfield of the University of Chicago, looked at me once and said, Wilson, stop trying to predict the future. You’re having enough difficulty predicting the past. He was quite right.
You can read the whole tribute to him here.