Intellectuals have come a long way since the publication of Julien Benda's "La Trahison des clercs." That was 1927. Although men (they are still mostly men) for the last century have been wide open to Benda's charge that intellectuals commit treason when they sacrifice truth for political ends, in America they were not even part of high politics until roughly 1960. That's when John Kennedy came to court them, not for their ideas so much, but for their influence over those Democrats who preferred Adlai Stevenson to him.
Or so Tevi Troy argues in his portrait of modern presidents and how they used (or chose not to use) American intellectuals. "Intellectuals and the American Presidency" is a lively tale and well told, and certainly not meant for academics only.
The story really begins with the first modern president, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Brain Trust, but John Kennedy was the first candidate to employ college (meaning Harvard) professors as a key component in winning the White House. The initially suspicious academics soon were flattered (is conned to strong a word? I think not) into providing ideas for the coming Camelot. It is amusing to note that they came up with very little in the way of useful suggestions (one suspects JFK knew this would happen in any case). They were, however, enormously helpful in giving their imprimatur to a very junior senator from Massachusetts who was still in the shadow of Eisenhower-era politicians of both parties.
JFK's point man in this ruse de politique was Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who as a reward for dragging the Stevensonians out of their ivory tower into the Kennedy camp was given an office in the White House's East Wing, the Executive Mansion's equivalent to Siberia. With little else to do except keep Harvard, et. al., happy, Mr. Schlesinger contributed political advice via memoranda, some of which was shrewd, but unheeded, e.g. the historian's warning against the folly of the Bay of Pigs.
But in keeping the professors in line he succeeded, quite brilliantly, and soon Kennedy had transformed himself into the first intellectual in the White House since Woodrow Wilson, and a patron of the arts to boot. To quote Cary Grant from the movie "North by Northwest," "what a performance!"It was mostly papier-mache, of course. Kennedy's one good domestic idea, the tax cut, was not much favored by the Keynesians of the era, or any era for that matter. But as with so many other things, the sequels to Kennedy-Schlesinger have never enjoyed the nearly the same success - as Mr. Troy points out repeatedly.
Eric Goldman, Lyndon Johnson's house intellectual, had a miserable time with a man whose scorn for the "Harvards" was as monumental as his ego. Mr. Goldman too had a huge problem with those very Harvards because while they were initially suspicious of Kennedy of Boston, Mass., they were overwhelmingly hostile to the man from Johnson City, Texas, and it wasn't just because of Vietnam. Daniel Patrick Moynihan probably had no easier time as Richard Nixon's thinker in residence, but Mr. Moynihan at least knew a lot about fashioning policy ideas, and had the enormous courage of his convictions, something of which Benda would have approved.
No one has seen his kind since unless one considers Martin Anderson who served Ronald Reagan in that capacity, but alas, for only one year. Or Jeane J. Kirkpatrick who could out-think and out-talk nearly every suit in the room - to Ronald Reagan's obvious delight.
That doesn't mean today's presidents don't think about intellectuals and how to use them. William Jefferson Clinton, as Mr. Troy shrewdly notes, masterfully manipulated the moderate Democrats in the Democratic Leadership Council by having them turn campaign Clinton into a New Democrat and thus avoid being a sure McGovern/Mondale/Dukakis Old Democrat loser. Once in the White House Mr. Clinton, again shrewdly, shelved the DLC and won over old style liberals from Harvard to Hollywood as he pursued a left-wing agenda, at least he did before getting caught up with Monica and all that.
Even then, Mr. Clinton found the intellectuals on the left as valuable mouthpieces. He did so through flattery, by letting them know he was reading their books. Even the great Kennedy had an appalling habit of disclosing he read mostly dead authors.
As for George W. Bush, he also has his uses for intellectuals, those from Hoover rather than Harvard, that is. And the president has done well in doing so in both senses. First, by associating with genuine men (and a woman, Condoleezza Rice) of talent he shielded himself from charges he was only a gentleman C scholar at Yale. Second, President Bush has used them as well as sources of ideas including the much, but unjustly, derided "compassionate conservatism."
It's all here and much more as Mr. Troy describes the changing presidency, the intellectual's role in presidential politics, and the ever mutating media. It's quite a ride.
Roger Fontaine served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration and currently teaches at the Institute for World Politics in Washington, D.C.