BENJAMIN BARBER was a busy man in the Clinton years. He was officially a professor of politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey. But he was also a frequent presence at Camp David and the White House, where he participated in intellectual "outreach" sessions with the president. In his spare time, he didn't hesitate to fire off memos and speech ideas to Clinton aides, too.
Mr. Barber recounts these activities in "The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House," but with a kind of sadness, for despite his fondest hopes, the Clinton presidency was, for him, a disappointment, never quite fulfilling its glowing promise. And Mr. Clinton was himself a maddeningly elusive figure.
Even so, the entire book is an exercise in hero worship, and not surprisingly. If one standard for success for any White House is the president's relations with intellectuals, and their regard for him, then Bill Clinton was the most successful president since John Kennedy, who famously brought intellectuals into his campaign and his administration, with Arthur Schlesinger serving as a liaison between the two worlds. A little history from that era may put Mr. Barber's "intellectual affair" in perspective.
Mr. Schlesinger's outreach efforts helped secure for Kennedy the kind of gushing treatment that was so ubiquitous at the time; indeed, it continues even today. (See Time magazine's recent, fulsome story on the Kennedy family, complete with a glamorous picture of Jack and Jackie on the cover.) Mr. Schlesinger offered his own contribution to the Kennedy hagiography with "A Thousand Days," which won the Pulitzer Prize.
In a certain way, courting intellectuals was easier in the Kennedy years. Then, most American intellectuals belonged to the consensus school of liberal anticommunism. The upheavals of the mid and late 1960s, though, changed all that. Lyndon Johnson felt the sting of a radical break-off when Johnson's successor to Mr. Schlesinger, Eric Goldman, organized a White House Conference on the Arts in 1965. It was supposed to be an anodyne event, but the invited guests used the occasion to make public their displeasure with Johnson's Vietnam policy. Unsurprisingly, Goldman left the White House soon after.
Intellectuals were sparse among Republicans when Richard Nixon entered the White House in 1969, so he hired Pat Moynihan, a Democrat who had no use for the radicals. Mr. Moynihan told Nixon to cultivate conservative intellectuals if he could, if only to counter the liberal establishment. He was especially concerned about college graduates, warning Nixon that every time an old-school liberal retired from the New York Times, their young replacements joined the ranks of the "Maoist faction on West 43rd Street." Mr. Moynihan advised Nixon to look to disaffected Democrats like Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer, who were in the process of creating the neoconservative movement.
As it happened, the neoconservatives arrived about 10 years later. Martin Anderson, called "Ronald Reagan's one-man think tank," brought together all kinds of conservative intellectuals -- neocons, libertarians, anticommunists -- to staff the Reagan administration.
Which brings us to Bill Clinton. He always understood the usefulness of intellectuals. In his presidential campaign, he associated himself with the thinkers around the Democratic Leadership Council -- quasi-neocons who could not quite bring themselves to become Republican -- to show that he was a different kind of Democrat. This maneuver distanced him from the McGovernites who had dominated the party for two decades.
Once in power, Mr. Clinton did not consult the DLC very much. But he did still see the value of cultivating intellectuals. Thus Mr. Barber joined a circle of professors and writers, including Amitai Etzioni, William Galston and Robert ("Bowling Alone") Putnam, for semi-regular chats with the president. ("The shared cashews, however, really were a problem. Every time I casually reached out with my right hand to take a nut, the president's large left hand shot out like cobra's head, dropping over the mouth of the cup, blocking my access.") George Stephanopoulos told Mr. Barber, referring to Mr. Barber's book on globalism, that "he was tired of Clinton pulling out a copy of Jihad vs. McWorld at every other meeting and talking about its relevance."
All of this courtship served Mr. Clinton well throughout his presidency, but especially during the Monica Lewinsky affair. The intellectual establishment overwhelmingly backed Mr. Clinton during the crisis -- signing petitions and ads declaring, among other things, that perjury in the service of sexual adventures was not an impeachable offense. Princeton's Sean Wilentz even testified on Mr. Clinton's behalf before Congress.
So Mr. Clinton received a great deal of help from intellectuals. But what did he give them in return? Not much. Mr. Clinton had a capacity, notes Mr. Barber, "to represent existentially groups for whom he did not deliver the goods -- a vital point for identity politics."
Mr. Barber's use of the word "affairs" in his subtitle is no accident. After eight years of seduction, he felt used and came to the conclusion that intellectuals may not belong in the White House but on the outside, shaping ideas in the world at large. It is surprising that it took him eight years to reach this conclusion.