Over the last 50 years, the American intellectual has had a storied and tumultuous career. Rising from relative obscurity and resentment in the 1940s, he has played a variety of roles in American political life, from celebrated hagiographer of Kennedy's Camelot, to policy guru for Reagan, to attack dog for Clinton. In Intellectuals and the American Presidency, Tevi Troy looks at whether the intellectual's role in the White House has been good or bad, helpful or hindering.
This worthy and well-executed book studies seven presidencies from the vantage point of the idea-men charged with reaching out to the intellectual community and harnessing their creativity to help advance White House objectives.
What the reader gets is far more than a scholarly study or even an insightful walk down the corridors of power. It's a lesson in why ideas backed by sound moral principles are essential to presidential success.
Troy begins with the familiar: Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. We quickly learn how this opportunistic professor shifted his political allegiances to back a winner and market himself as a key intermediary between the New York-Ivy League intellectual set and the White House. Before Schlesinger, intellectuals were mostly distrusted by the public and dismissed by hard-core political activists.
In the White House, Schlesinger banged out mostly useless policy memos and the odd essay or two. But he served another purpose. He gave a cultural and intellectual patina to the young and dissolute John F. Kennedy. For Kennedy, the bow-tie wearing academic was helpful politically. "By bringing Schlesinger into the White House but not giving him much power, Kennedy allowed conservative ire to fall on Schlesinger, letting other aides work productively in their relative obscurity," Troy observes, thus striking down yet another myth of Camelot.
Troy uses Schlesinger to define what he means by an intellectual in the White House: a person who has an independently established, well-respected reputation in the journalistic or scholarly community and who takes on the task of rallying intellectuals to the presidential standard. (Henry Kissinger, an actual political player, therefore does not qualify.)
The book pulls no punches and taps original sources to give readers a sense of how the egos are stroked and politics is conducted inside the White House.
For instance, few readers could read Kennedy's line to Schlesinger without losing their lunch: "I don't know if I mentioned to you before how impressed both Ted and I were with your memorandum on the future role of the Democratic Party. We are the wiser for reading it, and intend to use it further." From Troy's work it becomes clear such effusive language to critically minded intellectuals is common. And it works.
As Troy argues, American demographic and sociological trends strengthened the intellectual community and made it a genuine political force to be reckoned with—a powerful constituency to be handled, as one would with any other special interest. Troy uses this simple historical fact as an object lesson not just in power politics but also to show the evolution of ideas—from the New Left's acidic discontent in the '60s, the rise of the dissident neoconservatives, and later on the rising potency and vigor of the conservative think tanks.
The first public sign of left-wing intellectual disintegration came when Eric Goldman joined the White House under Lyndon Johnson. His mission was to use his scholarly background and academic reputation to attract intellectuals to the objectives of the Johnson administration.
To that end, Goldman suggested a White House Festival of the Arts. For the distinguished Goldman this became the equivalent of constructing square circles. Readers can imagine the disastrous fall out as the left turned against the Johnson administration's feckless policies on Vietnam and began to back out of the event. The chic poets and artists even showed their appreciation for LBJ by signing protest petitions while at the White House.
From there, readers learn, Goldman's esteem plummeted until he was given such august tasks as writing speeches for LBJ's teenage daughters. Troy's book is often wicked good fun. In his account of what it meant for Goldman and Schlesinger to be given offices in the East Wing, he observes: "Although working for the First Lady often involves aides in more prominent projects and ingratiates them with the president, it also gives off the aura of working in unserious, non-policy related areas, not unlike wearing a clown suit at a convention of IBM salesmen. To their chagrin, both Goldman and Schlesinger donned the costume during their White House tenure."
The book is at its best exploring the presidencies that could not make good use of intellectual firepower. As a kind of canary in the coalmine, the White House intellectual can signal early on the political drift or lack of ideological focus in an administration.
For instance, Carter's lack of any intellectual comrades was evidence, Troy notes, that his "belief system was so idiosyncratic that nobody other than he could possibly understand or articulate what he wanted." Failing to learn from Kennedy, Carter lacked any "one-man lightning rod for ideas"—and he paid the price. Carter's Svengali was pollster Pat Caddell whose main expertise was "studying the short-term anxieties of the electorate."
So, too, the doomed presidencies of Ford, Johnson, and Bush 41 were foreshadowed by their inability to communicate even those most basic ideas to their hired intellectual guns.
Ford's intellectual aide Bob Goldwin and chief of staff Dick Cheney once asked the accidental president, "What would you like to be identified with?" Ford's answer—"I like people"—was a model for men fated to suffer for their absence of any intellectual moorings. Bush 41's derisive comment about the "vision thing" portended similar troubles.
Of course, such indifference to ideas doesn't merely alienate friendly elites. Eventually the American people come to sense the lack of intellectual confidence and direction.
Ironically, it was Ronald Reagan (often dismissed as a witless dolt), who used intellectuals in the way most citizens think an intellectual ought to be used. With the help of the Hoover Institution's Martin Anderson, Reagan put confident, like-minded ideologues in real positions of influence where they could bring about real reform. The Reagan-Anderson relationship showed none of the sycophancy or wild swings of ego-stroking from other pairings of intellectual brains and political brawn. Anderson operated humbly as a facilitator, using ideas to identify and vet personnel who could be trusted to execute Reagan's ideas in a hostile city filled with power-hungry poseurs.
Still, Troy gives the crown for the most adept use of intellectuals to America's most popular impeached president: Bill Clinton. "The administration had carefully cultivated liberal intellectuals for years—with dinner invitations, idea requests, and, most of all, attention after twelve years of administrations they could not abide." That last point galvanized the left allowing Clinton to appeal to both the regnant intellectuals as well as confer with the centrist policy wonks of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Clinton himself signaled an interest in ideas by voraciously consuming the trendiest intellectual works. Troy points out that these efforts paid dividends. As the Lewinsky drama unfolded, Clinton and his chief hit man Sidney Blumenthal were able to tap the full force of the intellectual left: There were the 412 historians who put their name to a New York Times' ad decrying Clinton's impeachment and the string of professors who attacked the impeachment process during the House hearings, all willing to ruin their academic reputations for political hack work. (Troy in one of his invaluable asides reminds forgetful readers that the White House "eschewed factual witnesses" to recruit such intellectual accomplices.)
Intellectuals and the American Presidency is a wonderfully written insight into politics today. It reminds readers of the temptations of power and the dangers of political pandering that are endemic to government. It also has a positive message that no matter how slick or well-marketed in the world of politics nothing is more powerful than men of action emboldened by real ideas and a dedication to principle.