Over the last four decades, every president has learned the lesson that ideas and intellectuals are important in politics. John F. Kennedy's hiring of Arthur Schlesinger was perhaps the most famous presidential use of an intellectual, but Kennedy's successors have also tried to appeal to intellectuals in various ways. Intellectuals cannot elect a president, but they can make politicians appear to be men of vision and conviction.
In turn, this image helps presidents in the eyes of the media, party activists and, ultimately, voters. Intellectuals also serve for more than just appearance's sake, often bringing in new ideas to candidacies governed mainly by political considerations. Successful presidents have shown off their intellectuals, but have also learned from them as well.
You wouldn't know it from the abuse George W. Bush takes for his supposed lack of seriousness, but Mr. Bush has thus far understood this lesson better than Al Gore. Throughout the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush has demonstrated an understanding that ideas matter and a willingness to use prominent policy intellectuals to take advantage of that notion. Mr. Bush started on this project early. Back in April 1998, well before announcing for the presidency, Mr. Bush visited Stanford's Hoover Institution, named the world's best public policy institution by the Economist, visiting with top-notch Hooverites like former Secretary of State George Shultz, Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman and economist Martin Anderson, former economic adviser to Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Anderson and his colleagues were quite impressed by Mr. Bush and his ideas. Mr. Anderson, who had collected ideas and intellectuals for Mr. Reagan, recalled thinking, "Hey, this guy's really good." A few months later, Mr. Bush called Mr. Anderson, Mr. Shultz, Michael Boskin and Stanford Provost Condoleezza Rice to Austin, where they agreed to help set up a policy shop for Mr. Bush. That shop was a small army, with more than 100 experts broken up into teams under three major divisions, many of them from Hoover and the American Enterprise Institute.
In addition, Mr. Bush's major domestic message - compassionate conservatism - developed out of the ideas of conservative intellectuals like Myron Magnet and Marvin Olasky. Compassionate conservatism, ways to help individuals without relying on new big-government programs, appealed to conservatives and moderates alike.
On the foreign-policy side, Mr. Bush's team of "Vulcans" - Miss Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Bob Zoellick and Dov Zakheim - have helped give Mr. Bush both a consistent foreign policy message and a well-regarded team of experts from the Reagan and Bush administrations.
The backing of most of the GOP's top intellectuals, especially those in conservative think tanks like Hoover and AEI, helped Mr. Bush stave off conservative primary opponents like Dan Quayle and Steve Forbes. This buffer on the right proved crucial when Mr. Bush needed to focus on John McCain's furious challenge from Mr. Bush's left flank.
On the other side of this contest, Mr. Gore has made surprisingly little headway in using the intellectual community to his public advantage. Most of his major policy initiatives have come from the vast resources of the executive branch, and not his campaign's relatively small policy shop, led by New Democrat Elaine Kamarck. Partially as a result, his think team has not gained nearly the public attention of Mr. Bush's army. In addition, Mr. Gore's most famous "intellectual," feminist writer Naomi Wolf, had to downgrade her public role because of the embarrassment caused by front-page reports last November of her hefty $15,000 a month salary and New Age advice on Mr. Gore's wardrobe.
And while Mr. Gore has written books and has close relations with a number of public intellectuals -most notably the New Republic's Martin Peretz - he has rarely sought the support of intellectuals in a concerted and public way. Without a core group of prominent intellectual backers, Mr. Gore's campaign suffered through periods of drift, frequently reinventing itself in the search for a coherent message. Although Mr. Gore has regained surer footing recently, the delay likely hurt his standing in the polls.
Of course, the tale of the 2000 primaries and election campaign thus far does not mean Republicans own the intellectuals. Far from it. Democratic presidents have historically been more successful in using intellectuals to help shape their message. In 1992, for example, Bill Clinton brought the moderate intellectuals from the Democratic Leadership Council and the Progressive Policy Institute into his campaign. These affiliations helped demonstrate to the media and the voters that Mr. Clinton was a different kind of Democrat, not like the liberals who had lost three consecutive presidential elections. In the Oval Office, Mr. Clinton has skillfully used intellectuals to his advantage, most notably during the impeachment crisis of 1998, when much of the liberal intellectual establishment vocally backed Mr. Clinton.
The lesson? Intellectual support matters. Understanding this notion gave George W. an important early boost in the 2000 campaign. Whether this boost will have been enough remains to be seen.