For years, US leaders have attached themselves to intellectuals. The results have been sometimes rewarding, more often infuriating, says Tevi Troy
If intellectuals can learn one lesson from the past 40 years of American politics, it is that they matter. They help shape the perception of elected officials, both short term in the media, and long term in the history books. It is in politicians' interests to woo them, but intellectuals often do not realise this. So the other key lesson intellectuals should take from history is that they should not sell themselves too easily to the presidents who turn to them.
John F. Kennedy realised and capitalised on the potential of America's intellectuals. In 1960, he won the support of Harvard professors such as Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, despite competition from liberal icons Adlai Stevenson and Hubert Humphrey. As president, Kennedy hired Schlesinger as a special assistant, and Schlesinger served as ambassador to the liberal and intellectual communities. In that role, Schlesinger kept Kennedy abreast of developments among intellectuals, promoted his boss among the nation's literary elites, and, eventually, wrote the first draft of history in the award-winning Kennedy hagiography A Thousand Days.
Kennedy deserves credit for recognising the increasing importance of intellectuals in American life, but in many ways he had it easier than his successors. The 1960s began with most intellectuals belonging to the consensus school of liberal anti-communism. As a result of social and political tensions, the intellectual community split into conservative and liberal wings in the 1960s. This made things both easier and more difficult for politicians interested in intellectual support. More difficult because the concept of one-stop shopping for intellectual support, in Cambridge, Massachussetts, or anywhere else, could no longer work, but easier because fragmentation opened new opportunities for intellectuals and politicians frozen out of the monolithic liberal model.
Intellectuals today are far more numerous, better compensated and more influential than in the past. But as they have become more influential, they have also become more ambitious. And ambition makes them a potentially easy target for presidents.
Bill Clinton often recognised and exploited this. First, Clinton read a lot, as much as four books a week. But he did not change or even create policy as a result of his reading. Clinton, it seems, read for effect at least as much as to affect change. He was quite clever in his choice of reading material, and often used books successfully to woo the books' authors. According to Princeton historian Fred Greenstein, Clinton once conspicuously placed behind his desk Richard Reeves's book President Kennedy: Profile of Power, which discussed the disorganisation of the Kennedy White House. According to Greenstein: "When that book was published, Clinton had invited its author to meet with him and never touched on the theme of White House organisation, which is one of the weak points of Clinton's leadership."
Although there is nothing wrong with succumbing to a presidential charm offensive, there is a potential problem of compromised analysis, an extreme example being New Yorker writer and later Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal. It is a problem that affects both sides of the aisle. The rise of ideology over independent analysis has led to the development of two cadres of intellectual roundheels, who can largely be counted on to adhere to their party's line on any issue. Such a development is useful for the parties, but potentially worrisome for the cause of independent scholarship.
While intellectuals need to be careful around presidents, presidents cannot just ignore intellectuals at their whim. Jimmy Carter thought he could go it alone, and he did so throughout his successful campaign for the presidency. He relied heavily on his Georgia mafia of campaign staffers, and he believed that he did not need eastern intellectuals to tell him what to do. Subsequently, he became the first president since Kennedy without a full-time ambassador to intellectuals on staff. But when his administration floundered with the Iran hostage crisis and a double-dip recession, Carter could have used the support of America's literary and academic elites. After three years of ignoring intellectuals, however, it was too late and he bowed out in the 1980 election.
Despite the growing influence of intellectuals in US politics, it is a safe bet that they do not see themselves as sufficiently influential. Even when they serve in high office, they have relatively little influence. Yet they can help create a positive perception, within the media, among party activists and, ultimately, with voters. Mismanaging or, worse, ignoring them, as Carter did, can contribute to the perception of a president lacking in conviction or in vision.