Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians?
by Tevi Troy
Rowman & Littlefield. 255 pp. $27.95
The first duty of presidential aides is to make their boss look as good as possible. The first duty of intellectuals, as intellectuals, is to disclose as fully and disinterestedly as possible whatever measure of truth has been vouchsafed them. It follows that intellectuals who put themselves in the service of Presidents also put themselves in danger of becoming what Tevi Troy, in Intellectuals and the American Presidency, calls “intellectual roundheels.”
This is not to suggest that Troy’s study is primarily a cautionary tale, warning would-be court philosophers of the moral perils of proximity to power. That would be unlikely for an author who, an intellectual himself (the book began as a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Texas), has served since the mid-1990’s in various advisory roles to conservative causes and politicians (he is currently deputy assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Labor). Indeed, Troy is less concerned with how intellectuals have fared in the White House than with how well or badly Presidents since 1960 have managed them.
Troy identifies Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust”—Columbia professors Raymond Moley Rexford G. Tugwell, and Adolf A. Berle—as the first intellectuals to figure prominently as advisers to the President. But even they, though important in generating ideas for the 1932 campaign, had limited influence. It was only in the postwar period, with the GI bill and vast government spending on universities in the contest with the Soviet Union for scientific supremacy, that the country came to have a critical mass of people who, with varying degrees of plausibility, thought of themselves as intellectuals.
So it was that John F. Kennedy, following his election in 1960, decided to appoint the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. as a special assistant with the responsibility not only to help generate ideas but also to serve as liaison to the intellectual community at large. A prominent adviser to Adlai Stevenson during the 1950’s, Schlesinger had been influential during the Democratic primary in swinging a significant part of the “egghead” vote from Stevenson to Kennedy, and he was helpful thereafter in keeping intellectuals reasonably satisfied, if not entirely happy, with JFK (Intellectuals are a notably discontented lot; their instinctive reaction to most forms of authority is what Midge Decter has felicitously characterized as “principled ingratitude.”)
His ambassadorial role aside, Schlesinger was not, Troy indicates, a major presence in the Kennedy White House. And even his relative success with the intellectual community stemmed as much from the still intact “liberal consensus” of the 1950’s as from his talents. The shattering of that consensus over the Vietnam war made his successors’ lives far more difficult.
Eric Goldman, the Princeton historian whom Lyndon Johnson selected to replace Schlesinger (though only on a part-time basis), had a particularly disastrous tenure. In 1965, seeking to modify the mutually contemptuous relations between intellectuals and LBJ, Goldman organized a White House Festival of the Arts. Serious protest over Vietnam had just begun, and the festival became its victim, with one invitee, the poet Robert Lowell, announcing indignantly to the New York Times that he would not attend and another, the critic Dwight Macdonald, circulating a petition against the war as he mingled with his fellow guests. Goldman tried haplessly to act as referee, only to be viewed by the intellectuals as a sell-out and by LBJ as an incompetent trimmer.
Richard Nixon knew from the beginning that he could never win over the academic and artistic establishment. Disdaining the mainstream liberalism of the late 1960s, he found a kindred soul in his own in-house intellectual, the social scientist Daniel Patrick Moynihan. By that time, as Troy notes, the term “liberal intellectual” had ceased being redundant, and Moynihan’s appointment indicated the emerging influence of the neoconservatives, thinkers previously located on the Left who were drifting to the Right as liberals increasingly flirted with radicalism.
Troy, who clearly admires Moynihan, emphasizes his significant influence on the Nixon presidency. He also suggests that of all the intellectuals who served in his position, Moynihan best maintained his independence as a scholar while loyally serving the man who appointed him. (Because Troy restricts his attention to those who served Presidents specifically as intellectuals, and not those with particular policy portfolios, he does not discuss such obvious intellectuals as, for example, Henry Kissinger.)
In succeeding administrations, intellectuals began to fade from prominence. The political theorist Robert Goldwin, Gerald Ford’s resident thinker, had a difficult job. Ford was a decent man, but, as Troy makes clear, he did not have an intellectual bone in his body. Jimmy Carter never found an effective highbrow spokesman because, Troy indicates, no one could ever figure out what his idiosyncratic ideas added up to. Christopher Lasch was the best-known of the intellectuals whom he consulted, and his advice turned out badly, resulting in Carter’s notorious “malaise” speech of 1979.
Though not himself an intellectual, Ronald Reagan had a clear and coherent set of beliefs that everyone was familiar with well before he became President. Moreover, he was the best imaginable communicator of those beliefs, brilliantly circumventing the intellectual community and the media to present his vision of the nation directly to the American people. He had no interest in persuading liberal intellectuals of the Tightness of his ideas, and conservative thinkers needed no persuasion.
George Bush, Sr. could have used a persuasive intellectual spokesman, but he never found one because of his well-known difficulty with “the vision thing.” Bush was interested not in ideology but in, as he put it, “what works.” He wanted to preserve, with minor modifications, the world Ronald Reagan had created—which proved insufficient to earn him a second term.
In Troy’s estimation, Bill Clinton “used intellectuals more successfully than any President since Kennedy.” Though neither the moderate “new Democrats” nor the traditional Left trusted him, both rallied around, especially during the impeachment crisis in his second term. It was enough that Clinton was enormously charming and, more important, the bete noire of the Right. As Troy documents—showing flashes of ideological exasperation in his otherwise even-handed account—intellectuals like the journalist Sidney Blumenthal and the historian Sean Wilentz were willing to put forward any argument, however specious, to defend the enemy of their enemies.
Intellectuals and the American Presidency is an engaging, well-researched book, but it suffers from a tendency to overstate the significance of intellectuals in determining the success or failure of the presidencies it covers. Similarly, it gives too much credence to the notion that how a President handles intellectuals is somehow a key to his own general effectiveness.
As Troy intermittently recognizes, the political prowess of Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton did not depend on the skills of those who served under them. So also with the Presidents who fared less well. If a Carter or a Bush never fully registered with the American people, the failure lay with them; more artful intellectual coaching would not have made things right. Ideas count for a great deal in whether Presidents succeed, but intellectuals who work for Presidents count for relatively little.
As for the potential moral dilemmas of intellectuals tempted to align themselves too closely with particular presidencies, perhaps no better model exists than that of Irving Kristol. As Troy notes, Kristol has been an influential informal adviser to every Republican president since Richard Nixon, but he has never worked for, or been beholden to, any of them. He has had access and impact—perhaps more than any other intellectual of his generation—but he has steadfastly remained his own man. In the end, that independence of mind is the only guarantee of integrity.