Kathryn Jean Lopez: In a nutshell, what is your book about?
Tevi Troy: It's about the strategies presidents use to appeal to intellectuals. It is a history of how each White House since 1960, from Kennedy through Clinton, has dealt with the American intellectual community. Some, as you can imagine, deal better than others.
Lopez: Is there a message?
Troy: "Intellectuals matter." Intellectuals help shape the perception of elected officials, both short term in the media, and long term in the history books. As a result, it is in politicians' interests to woo the intellectuals. Intellectuals, however, often fail to realize this. As a result, the other key lesson is that intellectuals should not sell themselves too easily to the presidents who look to them.
Lopez: What is an intellectual?
Troy: When I talk about intellectuals, I'm generally talking about public intellectuals, relatively well-known generalists who speak or write for a living, are comfortable talking about most subjects, but always inject their own worldviews into their various endeavors. But there is something that David Brooks calls the "intellectual continuum," which starts at the top with public intellectuals, then widens to writers for highbrow magazines — The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Commentary — then widens to the professorate, then finally reaches down to the general educated reader, who reads the product of the public intellectuals and the highbrow magazines. So when presidents reach out to the people at the top of the continuum, they are hoping to get positive feedback that reaches those at the bottom of the continuum.
Lopez: What presidents have been intellectuals?
Troy: I don't think we've had an intellectual as president since Woodrow Wilson, who was a college professor and then president of Princeton before getting elected as governor of New Jersey and then president. But we've had some presidents who were very smart, and other who were very comfortable with intellectuals. John F. Kennedy, obviously, was very comfortable with intellectuals, Bill Clinton was quite at home with intellectuals and loved having long bull sessions with them. Ronald Reagan, although he's frequently derided as someone not very academically oriented, was very comfortable with intellectuals, and liked having idea people around him and staffing his administration.
Lopez: Who is the book written for?
Troy: It's for the general educated reader. Library Journal recommended my book for "those interested in the presidency and the history of ideas." Ben Wattenberg was more expansive, recommending it for "intellectuals, presidents, and the rest of us."
Lopez: Who are some of the heroes of your book?
Troy: People who come off well in my book are the presidents who have known how to deal with intellectuals — John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who served under Kennedy is not a hero so much as a model of intellectual ambassador that other administration have tried to emulate. Another hero is Gerald Ford, who came into office under very difficult circumstances following Richard Nixon's resignation. Ford hired political scientist Bob Goldwin to hold idea seminars with top scholars. These idea seminars helped anchor the Ford administration and, even though Ford lost his 1976 election bid, he came far closer than anyone expected him to. He also helped hold the country together during a very difficult period.
Lopez: Are there any villains in your book?
Troy: There are no villains per se, but a number of people come off poorly. Eric Goldman, who worked for Lyndon Johnson, could never decide whether his loyalties lay with the administration he worked for or his friends in the intellectual community. These two groups diverged at the White House Festival on the Arts, which Goldman organized, but became an albatross after numerous intellectuals boycotted the event in protest of the Vietnam War. Even worse, some of the attendees protested the war at the festival, circulating an anti-war petition. Unsurprisingly, Goldman left the White House a scant 10 weeks after the festival fiasco and then wrote a bitter memoir of his time in the Johnson White House.
Jimmy Carter also comes off poorly. Although he was very smart — he was one of the highest IQ presidents last century — he had a rough time defining what he stood for, and refused to reach out to the intellectuals who could help him refine his message. Mix that with a recession and a hostage crisis and you get a one-term presidency.
Lopez: Do Republicans or Democrats make out better in your book?
Troy: While Democrats have certain natural advantages among the intellectuals, I don't think one party comes off better than the other. I think that Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy were the most successful presidents with intellectuals of the last 40 years, but I think part of the reason for that is that they were willing to use the intellectuals when it suited them, and ignore them when it was convenient as well. Among Republicans , Ronald Reagan probably set the gold standard. Nixon was fascinated by intellectuals but just had terrible relations with them.
Lopez: Who are your favorite White House intellectuals?
Troy: Martin Anderson, who served as Ronald Reagan's "one man think tank," set up the model for conservatives to get involved in an administration. He collected lists of intellectuals who backed the Reagan campaigns in 1976 and 1980, and helped get many of them jobs in the Reagan administration. He also had no love for working in the government and returned to Hoover Institution and wrote a great book about his experiences. Plus, he's a great guy who blurbed my book.
Lopez: Any funny intellectual stories?
Troy: Richard Nixon selected Daniel Patrick Moynihan as his ambassador to the intellectuals. Moynihan was a Democrat who served in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations, making him the David Gergen of the 1960s.
Nixon chose Moynihan largely because of the dearth of conservative intellectuals who could fill such a position. In addition, Moynihan was disliked by most liberals for his critique of liberal excesses in the 1960s.
Moynihan felt strongly that old-line Democrats had no home in elite institutions increasingly populated by radicals. For example, Moynihan told Nixon that New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal oversaw "[a news room] still predominantly made up of old time liberal Democrats who can be counted on to report a story in a straight-forward manner." Unfortunately, Moynihan reported, "every time one of [the veterans] goes and is replaced by a new recruit from the Harvard Crimson or whatever, the Maoist faction on West 43d Street gets one more vote. No one else applies."
Lopez: How's this administration doing with the intellectuals?
Troy: In my book, I assess each administration in retrospect, often looking at internal documents or memoirs that are not available until after the administration, so I guess we'll have to wait and see before making any judgments.
Lopez: Having gotten to know so many of these intellectual/president relationships, have you any advice for presidents?
Troy: Yes. Actually, I've put together a "dos and don'ts" list.
- Don't ignore intellectuals, as it can come back to haunt you.
- Don't be an intellectual — the American people might like their politicians to consult intellectuals, but they won't vote for eggheads.
- Don't use an intellectual without a reputation as an intellectual — It's like sending a man to be the White House representative on women's issues.
- Don't forget your friends. If you rely heavily on an academic adviser in the campaign, make sure they're taken care of in the administration. Carter and Clinton made this mistake to some degree; Clinton got away with it, Carter did not.
- Don't make meetings of intellectuals public or reveal what was said in such meetings in any official way.
- Don't underestimate the capacity for flattery among intellectuals.
- Don't try to latch on to a cutting edge concept developed by a prominent intellectual work, especially if the concept is alarmist or disconcerting, a la malaise.
- Don't feel obligated to provide your aides with the same loyalty you demand from them.
- Don't confuse intellectual advisers with policy advisers, and vice versa.
- Do use intellectuals to express your vision. Having a group of thinkers affiliated with an idea — New Democrats, Compassionate Conservatism, even Supply-siders, is far more preferable to flailing about searching for the "vision thing."
- Do use the president's meal times liberally as a way to garner intellectual support. Even if you don't back their policies, few people refuse a free meal at the White House.
- Do call intellectuals and tell them you have read their works.
- Do work with prominent think tanks and seek their guidance on issues in the campaign, their personnel during transition. Do not publicly rely on think tank guidance as president.
- Do leak the existence of meetings with intellectuals, including the guest lists, and any amusing anecdotes that reflect favorably upon one or more of the attendees.
- Do let it be known when the president is reading a popular work by a well-known scholar, so long as it is not a Swedish planning text, a la Michael Dukakis.
- Do make sure that any intellectuals brought into the White House are loyal to the president above all else. Loyalty is the most important characteristic for an intellectual in the White House.
- Do expect that any public intellectual in the White House will produce a book describing their experiences. Do your best to ensure that this is a positive book, as it will help shape your legacy. As Forrest McDonald wrote: "By and large, works by former White House aides are good sources of information on the subject. Presidents, in their memoirs, are less helpful."
- Do seek out advice from intellectuals, but do not rely on that advice