What's perhaps most surprising about this book is that it took so long for someone to write it. Intellectuals have been attaching themselves to the White House since the New Deal, and presidents have been attaching themselves to intellectuals, with results that have at times been amusing, at times infuriating and even at times -- though not many -- mutually rewarding, yet apart from a handful of memoirs by egghead lapdogs the subject of this peculiar relationship has been widely ignored.
Now comes Tevi Troy to fill the void, and fill it he does. His title has about as much animation as a textbook and his prose occasionally reads as if it were one, but in a relatively brief space Troy has gotten the necessary information down in proper order and made a fair amount of sense (or, when the situation calls for it, nonsense) out of it. His qualifications for the task are somewhat unclear -- he was policy director for John Ashcroft during Ashcroft's tenure as senator from Missouri and is now a deputy assistant secretary at the Labor Department -- but he has done his research well and for the most part steers clear of partisanship.
Intellectuals had little to do with the presidency (and vice versa) before the New Deal mostly because the White House staff was very small and probably because it crossed no one's mind that they might play a useful role. Then Franklin Delano Roosevelt put together his "brain trust," which had more to do with window-dressing than with hard policy decisions but helped FDR "maintain relations with the liberal intellectual community." Then in the late 1950s, as John F. Kennedy began his race for the presidency, he and his closest advisers realized that courting intellectuals could give him credibility among eggheads who were still madly for Adlai Stevenson and perhaps even woo some of them into the Kennedy camp.
This, in fact, happened. John Kenneth Galbraith, Walt Rostow, Chester Bowles and -- most notably and most notoriously -- Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. all became ardent Kennedy partisans. The population of intellectuals may have been minuscule, and Kennedy himself was certainly no egghead, but their influence among what Gore Vidal eventually called the chattering classes was disproportionately large; indeed, it has become all the more so as the volume of chatter has been turned up in this age of talking heads and the Internet.
Schlesinger -- prominent, respected, partisan, articulate and ambitious -- became the pet intellectual of the Kennedy White House. His influence probably was no greater than Adolph Berle's had been under FDR, but he "worked on the arts, gave general political advice, helped create the White House library, provided a liaison with the mainstream intellectual community and, most unofficially, served as a liberal lightning rod, giving cover to the rest of the staff." In assigning Schlesinger this role, "Kennedy established the model for future intellectuals in the White House."
Schlesinger's successor, under Lyndon Johnson, was the unfortunate Eric Goldman, who seems to have had absolutely no line of communication with the president and was instead shipped off to the first lady and the first daughters. As Troy wryly notes: "As a professor only two years earlier, Goldman had graded the papers of college students. Now he was ghostwriting for two girls in their teens." As Troy later and rather less tartly points out, "the intellectual in the White House [occupies] a somewhat effeminate position, in contrast to the male, policy positions, [which] plagued Schlesinger" as well as Goldman and most others who assumed that role.
The first important exception seems to have been Martin Anderson, who left the Hoover Institution and worked for Ronald Reagan. He "held a great deal of power in staffing the administration, and staffing it in a conservative way." By then, the conservative illuminati matched -- indeed exceeded -- their liberal counterparts in candlepower and commitment. Anderson gave Reagan valuable service, but he was eager to return to Stanford and left the administration after barely a year.
Still, he helped establish a tradition of conservative intellectualism in the White House that went dormant in the first Bush administration but has returned in strength in the second. Troy persuasively argues that in preparing for his campaign, George W. Bush -- much like Kennedy four decades earlier -- "dogged by a perception that he lacked the policy depth to be president, assembled a large team of well-known policy experts," a team that now serves him with much distinction in the White House.
This team, though, is a far cry from the lonely White House intellectual as embodied by Schlesinger or, even more unfortunately, Sidney Blumenthal, Bill Clinton's "hit man." Whatever one may think of the policies they promote, these men and women aren't policy wonks but experienced public servants who administer as well as create policy. Indeed, Troy suggests at the end that the Schlesinger model is a thing of the past, as "the traditional intellectual has faded away, and the new intellectuals are hard to distinguish from journalists, professors or pundits," which is to say ambitious, self-serving and self-promoting.