Although they have become a favorite punching bag for many conservative commentators, intellectuals play an important role in American life. Their impact is felt not only on university campuses and in the pages of academic journals but also inside the White House. In fact, intellectuals are so important to the American presidency that U.S. presidents "ignore the intellectuals at their peril." This is the thesis of Tevi Troy's important and absorbing book Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians?
Nearly half of Troy's book is devoted to explaining the ways in which intellectuals can be useful to presidents and candidates running for president. Troy focuses on two important strategies. First, presidents hire intellectuals who help maintain positive relations with the academic community, men and women whom Troy calls "intellectual ambassadors." This strategy has become more difficult in recent decades as the ranks of influential scholars have increased, diversified politically, and expanded beyond the Ivy League universities. The second strategy, which became increasingly common after Daniel Patrick Moynihan served under Richard Nixon, involves the "more cerebral task" of bringing "new thoughts and a coherent perspective to the administration."
Although Troy urges politicians to embrace rather than ignore intellectuals, he documents in great detail how many presidents have been disappointed and even hurt by intellectuals. Princeton professor Eric Goldman, who served as Lyndon Johnson's scholar-historian, was a flop from the beginning. He ended up drafting speeches not for the president but for his two teenage daughters. Gerald Ford's hired mind, Robert A. Goldwin (also known as the "president's professor"), was a scholar of considerable intellect who introduced the administration to bright new thinkers like James Q. Wilson and Martin Diamond. But Goldwin, according to Troy, was unable to influence policy even on signature issues like affirmative action. Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush used intellectuals very sparingly and usually looked elsewhere for advice and assistance.
Meticulously researched, Troy's book skillfully deploys massive amounts of detailed historical knowledge to make and support its arguments. Troy covers so much ground, in fact, that he sometimes races through what seem like important points. There are times when Troy might have paused longer to reflect and consider more fully the implications of his findings--the fact that Eisenhower and Reagan were both successful and admired presidents who were also both dismissive of intellectuals seems especially relevant.
Troy chooses to focus on the positive. He contends that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were the first presidents to show that "the advantages of intellectuals could actually outweigh the liabilities." FDR's intellectuals, a group of three Columbia professors who became known as his "brain trust," were better ambassadors than policy advisers. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the famous Harvard historian tapped by JFK, was also more effective at lobbying and networking than in generating new ideas and strategy. Both helped bring aboard skeptical journalists and academics and improved the overall reputation of their respective administrations.
Richard Nixon had even better luck with his leading resident intellectual, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But unlike his predecessors, "Nixon did not hire Moynihan to assuage the academic intellectual community." Instead, Nixon cast Moynihan as a front-line domestic policy adviser charged with injecting new, compelling ideas into the bloodstream of the White House. This was a great leap forward for intellectuals, for the American presidency, and also for the burgeoning group of neoconservatives.
The Nixon/Moynihan chapter, which is the book's most useful, might have been subtitled "A Guidebook for Presidential Intellectuals." It describes Nixon's gutsy decision to hire Moynihan away from the Democrats, and suggests that in their role as presidential advisers, intellectuals can both serve their nation and deepen their scholarly integrity.
Troy argues compellingly that Moynihan deserves much credit for revitalizing the intellectual roots of American conservatism by posing critical questions that helped steer the Republican party away from its reputation as "the stupid party." In one 19-page memo to Nixon, Moynihan discussed the dismal state of the conservative movement and wrote that "Republicans, as a group, have almost no confidence that any serious thinker could be with you on any issue of consequence. Economists, perhaps, but few others." As a result, Moynihan encouraged Nixon to pay more attention to thinkers like Irving Kristol, Robert Nisbet, and Herman Kahn. Nixon did so, and these men made vast imprints on the nation's political, intellectual, and moral landscape during the next several decades.
While Troy regards Moynihan as the model White House intellectual, he maintains that President Clinton "used intellectuals more successfully than any president since Kennedy." Clinton's intellectuals, of course, played roles very different from those played by Moynihan. White House allies like Princeton historian Sean Wilentz and Sidney Blumenthal of the New Yorker were brought aboard not as benevolent critics but as academic cheerleaders--or, as Troy calls them, "intellectual roundheels."
Troy argues that intellectuals helped Clinton survive the scandals that so often plagued him. "The lesson of the Clinton administration," Troy writes, "was that good relations with intellectuals paid dividends." But there is another side to this lesson, more important than the short-term boosts in popularity that intellectuals sometimes bestow. Liberal intellectuals may have helped Clinton in the short run, but they hurt the Democratic party in the long run. Indeed, Clinton's intellectuals became so captive to presidential charms that they undermined their own legitimacy and helped give the Democrats a reputation for moral laxity that continues to haunt them to this day.
Ironically, the president often characterized as an intellectual lightweight has in fact used intellectuals to great effect. Troy's book, published soon after George W. Bush was elected to the White House, shows how conservative intellectuals played a key role in Bush's campaign. Thinkers such as James Q. Wilson, Chris DeMuth, John DiIulio, Myron Magnet, and Marvin Olasky influenced many of Bush's early policy positions on issues such as taxes, missile defense, and the environment, and helped develop a new ideology, sounding at once moderate and moralistic, called "compassionate conservatism."
After he was elected, and especially since September 11, 2001, President Bush has expanded the role of intellectuals in his administration. Most significantly, intellectuals like Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Cohen, and Condoleezza Rice have helped shape our new national-security policy. The "National Security Strategy of the United States," a National Security Council report authored in large part by Rice, makes a powerful and nuanced case for "preemptive war," one that is undergirded by big ideas about international relations at the start of the twenty-first century. Princeton historian Bernard Lewis's writings on Islamic history have also been a critical influence on the Bush administration's strategy in the war on terrorism.
The mainstream media is beginning to pick up on intellectuals' prominence in the current White House. In early April, the New York Times ran an article outlining the "books, philosophers and policy analysts [who] have played a significant role in shaping and promulgating the administration's thinking about foreign policy, America's place in the world and the war against Iraq," while another pointed to the influence of the philosopher Leo Strauss. Although much of this commentary is overwrought and conspiratorial, it is a wider acknowledgment that the president's most important policy decisions are informed by scholarly work done inside and outside the White House.
In the end, Troy is careful to qualify his endorsement of the presidential-intellectual partnership. He warns of the dangers for conservatives in particular, writing that "the line between conservative intellectual and Republican operative has become so thin that it is almost invisible. In fact, the advent of a Republican administration presents a powerful challenge to the integrity of the conservative intellectual movement." Troy is ultimately ambivalent about the role of intellectuals in the American presidency. But if one believes that ideas have consequences, then presidents should hunt for top minds as energetically as they do voters. And for that, Troy concludes, the presidential-intellectual relationship deserves our attention.
Jason Bertsch is the director of corporate relations at The American Enterprise Institute.