All the presidents' brains

July 5, 2002

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.

Tevi Troy served as the deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Labor and is author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency , published by Rowman and Littlefield on July 30, £20.95.


Uneasy bedfellows

Lyndon B. Johnson - who served from 1963-1969 - was uncomfortable with Kennedy's success with intellectuals - the "Harvards", as Johnson called them. Nevertheless, Johnson still craved the accolades Kennedy received from the academic community. Johnson resented the fact that his aides, such as Jack Valenti, did not get the same kudos as Kennedy aides such as Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen. According to Johnson:

"Jack is really an intellectual. People would admit it if he didn't come from the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line."

Johnson did hire Princeton professor Eric Goldman (top) as his ambassador to intellectuals, but he never really trusted him. Their relationship deteriorated when the White House Festival of the Arts, which Goldman organised, became an albatross after numerous intellectuals boycotted the event in protest against the Vietnam war.

Even worse, some of the festival-goers circulated an anti-war petition. Charlton Heston blasted petition ringleader Dwight MacDonald for his behaviour, saying that "having convictions doesn't mean that you have to lack elementary manners. Are you really accustomed to signing petitions against your host in his home?"

Goldman, for his part, was largely silent about the misbehaviour of his friends, as Johnson fumed. Unsurprisingly, he left the White House a scant ten weeks after the fiasco. Later, he wrote a bitter memoir of his time in Johnson's White House. Johnson suffered poor relations with intellectuals throughout the rest of his presidency.


In the wrong camp

When Richard Nixon - 1969-1974 - won the presidency in 1968, he selected former Kennedy and Johnson staffer Daniel Patrick Moynihan (above) as his ambassador to intellectuals largely because of the dearth of conservative intellectuals who could fill such a position.

Although Moynihan was a committed Democrat, he was disliked by most liberals for his critique of liberal excesses in the 1960s. He felt strongly that old-line Democrats had no home in the elite institutions increasingly populated by radicals.

For example, Moynihan told Nixon that New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal oversaw "[a news room] still predominantly made up of old-time liberal Democrats who can be counted on to report a story in a straightforward manner". Unfortunately, Moynihan reported, "every time one of (the veterans) goes and is replaced by a new recruit from the Harvard Crimson or whatever, the Maoist faction on West 43rd Street gets one more vote. No one else applies."

Despite his critique of radicals, Moynihan still found himself mistrusted by Republicans, including fellow White House staffers, because of his party affiliation.

To his credit, he recognised the untenable nature of his position and recommended that Nixon hire and nurture conservative intellectuals of his own.

This foreshadowed the flowering of conservative intellectuals in the Reagan administration, as Reagan reached into the newly developed conservative think-tanks to help staff his administration.


Frustrated friends

Bill Clinton - 1993-2001 - was keenly aware of the intellectual community. From the start of his campaign, when he cultivated the centrist intellectuals in the Democratic Leadership Council, through the depths of his impeachment trial, when much of the intellectual establishment rose to defend the president, Clinton consistently used his good relations with intellectuals to his advantage.

Early in his presidency, he let slip the fact that he tried "to read at least 30 minutes a day". He often strategically placed recently written books on his desk, which endeared him to their authors. But things did not always work out in favour of the intellectuals charmed by Clinton. Al From of the DLC boasted that his organisation would help shape the administration, but Clinton spent much of his first two years edging leftward, away from the DLC's centrist ideas. Labor secretary Robert Reich (top), a committed liberal, was frustrated too. His attempts to introduce liberal ideas were often stymied by Clinton pollster and political guru Dick Morris, who would tell Reich things like: "I tested your ideas. One worked. Two didn't."

Although Clinton disappointed many of his intellectual backers, they backed him in his darkest hours - 412 intellectuals signed a petition saying his impeachment was unconstitutional. And in the impeachment hearings, judiciary committee chairman Henry Hyde said that the panel had "heard from so many college professors that I think I'm going to ask if we can get college credit for attending the seminars".

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