America’s intellectual class seems to adore President Barack Obama nearly as much as it reviled his predecessor. While George W. Bush was routinely derided for his purported lack of intelligence and learning, Obama has been embraced by the intellectuals as one of their own—to a degree unmatched by any president since perhaps Woodrow Wilson. Indeed, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spoke for many when he argued after the 2008 election that “American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual.” Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker even sought to make it official, calling Obama a “certified intellectual.”
This difference in attitudes says as much about the state of American intellectuals as it does about Bush and Obama. It also highlights the complicated relationship between intellectuals and the modern American presidency. That relationship has been of great interest to recent presidents; most chief executives since John Kennedy have tended, in some overt way, to their links with the nation’s intellectual elite. They have sought to use these intellectuals to their own advantage, whether as expert advisors, cultural ornaments, or political cover.
The story of those efforts, and of the assumptions underlying them, illustrates the changing role of intellectuals in our culture — from esteemed and establishmentarian, to countercultural and oppositional, to highly politicized and partisan. This narrative can also help us better understand the interplay of elitism and populism in our recent political history. Above all, it is a cautionary tale for President Obama.
The Rise of the Intellectuals
The term “intellectual” took the place of the old-fashioned “man of letters” sometime near the end of the 19th century—first among the French, and then the English and Americans. This difference in terms also reflects a difference in kind. A man of letters—while not necessarily a professor in a university—was a learned observer of the times, but tended to offer insights rooted in more timeless truths and principles. Drawing from a broad knowledge of the canon—of history, philosophy, science, literature, or art—he informed the views of other educated people about various social, political, or cultural issues of the day.
Modern intellectuals, too, are learned commentators on contemporary events. But they tend to be less concerned with a knowledge of the canon, and more fixated on these issues of the day, and often seek a mass audience in our mass democracy. We even have a subset of intellectuals who are particularly involved in public affairs, either inside or outsideof government. Historian Russell Jacoby labeled them “public intellectuals,” usually well-known, well-educated generalists who can speak or write about most subjects, injecting their own overarching worldviews into their pronouncements.
These public intellectuals are, in many ways, the opinion-shapers of the growing educated class. Some are academics; others are writers, critics, or journalists; most have gone through a few elite universities, at least as undergraduates; all try to contend with social and political reality at the conceptual level, so as to offer a perspective that provides some coherence to politics and current events. Of course, the reality of their existence is not always so high-minded: They also form a community of intellectuals, with its own, often low-minded, politics and culture, and its own complex connections to the popular culture and the rough-and-tumble of American politics.
Intellectuals have in fact played a conspicuous role in our national politics, and especially presidential politics, since at least the 1930s. To contend with the Great Depression, and to assure the country that he was putting the best minds in America to work on the crisis, Franklin Roosevelt famously gathered a “Brain Trust” of prominent academics and policy experts around him. These men, drawn from elite universities (particularly the faculties of Harvard and Columbia), helped both to design the programmatic substance of the New Deal and to shape the administration’s early case for it.
The prominence of the Brain Trust coincided with a broader improvement in the standing of intellectuals in American life. Since the days of Andrew Jackson, if not earlier, Americans had been suspicious of the sophisticated expert claiming to know it all. But the Roosevelt era marked the start of a 60-year period of almost constant crisis—from the Great Depression through World War II and the Cold War—and of increasingly complex governing challenges at home and abroad. This period raised the stakes of American politics, and created a need for expert advice. Although intellectuals do not inherently make for superior policy advisors, presidents throughout this era were eager to reassure the public that the country’s brightest minds were on the job; the constant state of emergency also motivated many intellectuals to donate their services to the nation. The traditional American suspicion of the arrogant and over-educated expert began to subside, and in its place emerged a palpable desire—if not admiration—for responsible expertise and learned opinion.
This trend intensified after the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the launch of Sputnik in 1957. As historian Richard Hofstadter put it, after Sputnik, “the national distaste for intellect appeared to be not just a disgrace but a hazard to survival.” Washington issued a call for experts, and an assortment of specialists answered. The initial pursuit of scientific and technical expertise quickly grew into an appreciation for experts and academics of all sorts—including intellectuals. By the 1960s, Hofstadter found the nation’s capital decidedly “hospitable to Harvard professors and ex-Rhodes Scholars.”
Changing educational patterns also played a role in this evolving attitude. In the years following World War II, as a result of higher living standards and the G.I. Bill of Rights, many more Americans were attending college. By 1956, the final year of the original G.I. Bill, American institutions of higher learning granted almost 240,000 more degrees and employed almost 150,000 more faculty members than they had at the time of the bill’s enactment 12 years earlier. This influx of students and faculty not only provided more jobs for the intellectually inclined, but also changed the attitudes of a vast swath of the country about the significance of academic training and the value of those who possessed it.
The elite intellectuals’ rise to prominence was especially noticeable in Democratic Party politics, and demonstrated best by Adlai Stevenson—the party’s presidential standard-bearer in 1952 and ’56 — who both embodied and made use of the Democrats’ growing reputation as the party of the brainy avant garde. As Stevenson eventually learned, being an “egghead”—a term famously used to describe him — was not always a good thing in electoral politics. But being associated with the educated and sophisticated set did have its political advantages: It lent the Democrats a certain cultural cachet as the party that governed with expertise. And Stevenson’s successor to the Democratic presidential nomination would do a far better job of accentuating those advantages.
Intellectuals and the Modern Presidency
John Kennedy understood the glamour and mystique that intellectuals could bring to a White House. The only president to win a Pulitzer Prize (in 1957 for Profiles in Courage), Kennedy worked to secure intellectual support for his presidential campaign through the Academic Advising Committee—a group of professors from elite universities, brought together by Ted Sorensen, who coordinated policy proposals and academic endorsements. As a result of the AAC’s efforts, Washington Post reporter Thomas Winship concluded in late 1959 that Kennedy stood “on the verge of ‘owning’ a remarkable segment of New England’s university and industrial brain power—lock, stock, and speechwriting pad.”
Kennedy saw intellectuals as opinion-shapers of the liberal establishment, and thought that by being identified with them, he could reinforce his own elite establishment credentials. According to Sorensen, Kennedy even saw himself as “something of an ivory tower president.” So while building his own image as a cool and debonair leader, Kennedy consciously cultivated the sense that his administration was composed of serious, earnest thinkers—the best and brightest America had to offer. In addition to tapping prominent academics to serve in cabinet posts and as White House advisors, Kennedy even created a role for an administration “in-house intellectual”—a job specifically designed for and filled by historian Arthur Schlesinger.
Schlesinger laid out his vision of the job in a memo to Kennedy written during the post-election transition. The historian saw himself as part cultural advisor, part liaison to the academy and the world of ideas, and part one-man liberal idea factory. He also knew that his role would incorporate a political purpose: to make the left feel better about Kennedy. “I should add that it might also be of use to have someone in the White House in whom labor and liberals would find what you once called ‘visual reassurance’ and whom they could trust as a channel for communications,” Schlesinger wrote to the president-elect.
By shunning any particular policy responsibility, Schlesinger excluded himself from Kennedy’s inner circle, and his activities suggest that he was kept at a distance from key policy decisions and debates. In his time at the White House, Schlesinger wrote articles and film reviews for various publications, corresponded with the nation’s intellectual and cultural elites, advised Kennedy on assorted cultural matters, worked with Americans for Democratic Action to promote the liberal agenda, and accumulated research for the book he eventually wrote about the Kennedy White House. In short, Arthur Schlesinger was paid a handsome salary to be…Arthur Schlesinger.
From Kennedy’s perspective, he was worth every penny—not only as a link to intellectuals who offered important public support (like Archibald Cox and John Kenneth Galbraith), but, it turned out, also as a guardian of the Kennedy legacy. In no small part because of Schlesinger and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Thousand Days, the Kennedy mystique endured long after the president’s untimely death—sustained by this narrative of intellectual seriousness and cultural sophistication.
No president until Barack Obama managed to win the trust and adoration of American intellectuals as Kennedy did. The reasons have as much to do with changes in the culture of elite American intellectuals as with the attitudes of subsequent presidents. Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, was not nearly as well suited to attract the adulation of the smart set: The Texan was uneasy with the liberal, East Coast intellectual community, and its members more than repaid his unease—generally viewing “Uncle Cornpone” as some kind of reactionary southern demagogue, even as he advanced the liberal agenda far more effectively than Kennedy had.
Johnson did follow Kennedy’s example of hiring a court intellectual to help burnish his image and manage his relations with the academy and the world of high culture. But Johnson’s choice, Princeton history professor Eric Goldman, ended up reinforcing rather than mitigating the perception that Johnson was anti-intellectual. As the anti-Vietnam War movement heated up, Goldman found himself caught between his boss and the worlds of the academy and the arts, where opposition to the war was growing. American intellectuals were becoming radicalized, and the norms of the elite establishment no longer governed their behavior.
These changes came to the surface in 1965, when Goldman was assigned to organize a White House Festival of the Arts, intended in large part to boost Johnson’s reputation among the intelligentsia. The event achieved just the opposite: One prominent invitee, the poet Robert Lowell, publicly pulled out to protest Johnson’s Vietnam policies; cultural critic Dwight MacDonald, another invitee, attended but circulated a petition supporting Lowell’s protest against the war. These actions prompted the prim and proper White House social secretary Bess Abell to tell Goldman that “these people of yours—and this festival—have done nothing but cause trouble for the President.” MacDonald followed up with a scathing essay against Johnson in the New York Review of Books, and the whole episode only heightened the tensions between the White House and many intellectuals over Vietnam.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, particularly as a result of the Vietnam debate (though also in connection with the broader culture war then heating up), America’s elite intellectuals—from perches at leading universities, prominent publications, and key cultural institutions—gradually transformed themselves from the voice of the establishment to the leading edge of a newly radicalized liberalism. Johnson’s attempts to contend with this change would come to embody the Democrats’ approach to presidential relations with American intellectuals—offering symbolic gestures meant to borrow some cultural cachet, while often ignoring the intellectuals’ substantive views on policy questions.
Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, pursued what would become a Republican model for contending with the radicalization of the academy and the arts: the elevation and cultivation of alternative intellectuals, men and women disenchanted by the radicalism of their colleagues and more inclined toward cultural and political conservatism. In this way, Republicans actually came to give intellectuals more meaningful roles in the management of the government, while liberals tended to employ them for symbolism and cover.
Nixon’s in-house intellectual was a thorn in the side of many liberals: Daniel Patrick Moynihan. A Harvard professor who had served as assistant secretary of labor in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations where he gained notoriety for a 1965 report warning about the collapse of the black family), Moynihan had little patience for the increasing radicalism of many fellow academics. He was (and always remained) a Democrat, but by the time Nixon was elected in 1968, Moynihan was part of the emerging neoconservative movement of intellectuals disenchanted with the left. And Nixon was drawn to the possibility of offering up his own intellectuals to oppose those of the liberal intelligentsia he so detested.
As urban-affairs advisor and later in the nebulous role of “counselor to the president,” Moynihan wrote a number of brilliant memoranda for Nixon, criticizing liberal elites for the very excesses that had brought about Moynihan’s own disenchantment, from cultural radicalism to misguided welfare policies. His enmity toward the radical left was repaid in kind (and then some): In one 1970 memo, Moynihan wrote to the president that “yesterday in Cambridge the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] announced that my house would be burned during the night. The University asked my family to ‘evacuate’ and they, in effect, went into hiding.” Nothing happened that night, but upon receiving the memo, Nixon ordered Secret Service protection for Moynihan’s family.
Moynihan eventually left the White House under a cloud of controversy after liberals attacked his recommendation that the administration adopt a policy of “benign neglect” toward the black community. Moynihan’s intent in the memo was to encourage the administration to dial down its racial rhetoric so as not to send the black community into the arms of radical black leaders. But when his memo on the subject was leaked to the New York Times (quite possibly by a young Leon Panetta), the subsequent, sensationalized front-page story put Moynihan at the center of yet another controversy involving race. Civil-rights leaders and liberal journalists responded with outrage, and the furor made Moynihan’s continued enure at the White House impossible.
Despite his difficulties, however, Moynihan played an important role in the development of a conservative intellectual response to liberalism. In his informal role as intellectual liaison, Moynihan tried to encourage Nixon to cultivate conservative intellectuals to defend the Republican point of view. As Moynihan wrote in a long 1970 memo to Nixon, “No one writes articles for us, much less books, plays, or folk songs.” He also warned Nixon of the possibility of a Kulturkampf in the political press, which the left was winning by driving out liberal but non-radical reporters in favor of younger, radical replacements. As Moynihan described this process at the New York Times, “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 43d Street gets one more vote. No one else applies.”
The solution to these twin problems, Moynihan argued, was to have Nixon begin associating with academics and intellectuals who understood what he was up to, and who could amplify Nixon’s agenda “on the basis of their special competencies.” Moynihan understood his own limitations in this regard, writing that he couldn’t do it because “It needs to be done by real Republicans.” He therefore recommended that the administration increase its outreach to non-liberal professors who could begin to defend the administration’s positions. Some of the people Moynihan suggested should be invited to meet with the president included James Q. Wilson, Aaron Wildavsky, David Riesman, Sidney Hook, Lionel Trilling, Irving Kristol, and Robert Nisbet. None of them ended up filling Moynihan’s shoes, but Moynihan did begin the process of putting non-liberal intellectuals, including some thinkers who were emerging as neoconservatives, on the White House radar screen. He established a model for what a more conservative, or at least a non-liberal, intellectual—one expressly out of line with the mainstream of the academy and highbrow culture—could do in the White House. It was a model subsequent Republican presidents, beginning with Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford, would look to and build upon.
During Ford’s brief tenure, the White House intellectual-in-residence was political-philosophy professor Robert Goldwin—the first out-and-out conservative to serve in such a role. (Moynihan, for all of his neoconservative tendencies, reverted back to liberalism after winning election as a Democratic U.S. senator from New York in 1976.)While Goldwin had significant intellectual credentials—as a professor at the University of Chicago and Kenyon College, and later as dean of St. John’s College—he served less as a policy advisor, and more as a link between the president and the burgeoning conservative intellectual world. Prominent conservative thinkers like Irving Kristol, Thomas Sowell, and James Q. Wilson were beginning to build a kind of elite case for populism in American politics—for defending traditional American values against a radical onslaught led by the left-leaning intellectuals, who increasingly inhabited the upper tiers of America’s educational and cultural institutions. It was these conservative intellectuals whom Goldwin invited to meet with and advise President Ford; he made no pretense of serving as a liaison to his more liberal academic colleagues. As Donald Rumsfeld, who was Ford’s chief of staff, wrote in a recent obituary for Goldwin: “Bob Goldwin was the Ford administration’s one-man think tank, its intellectual compass, and bridge to a new conservatism—a conservatism that was unashamed to be conservative.”
Goldwin’s approach to his job foreshadowed the growing split between liberal and conservative intellectuals (a split that, in our time, has become an outright chasm). This alternative conservative intelligentsia would always claim much smaller numbers (and less general influence) than the liberal academic community, which would continue to dominate American intellectual life and define the mainstream of intellectual culture. But when it came to the White House, conservative thinkers would often be taken more seriously by Republican presidents than liberal intellectuals were by Democrats—and so would come to play a crucial role in American public life.
This relative marginalization of liberal intellectuals could be seen in 1976, with the election of Jimmy Carter—who returned to something like Lyndon Johnson’s ambivalence toward intellectuals. Carter had run as a centrist populist who had promised to clean up Washington in the wake of the Watergate scandal; he did not feel compelled to brandish intellectual credentials or surround himself with eggheads. He also shared some of Johnson’s mistrust of the intellectual elite: Former Carter speechwriter James Fallows notes that when experts from Harvard and the Brookings Institution came to brief Carter on various policy issues during the ’76 campaign, the candidate joked with his staff that these wonks would call him “a dumb southern redneck when he made his first mistake.”
Carter employed no permanent representative to the intellectual class, and his occasional efforts at outreach often did not end well. One famous attempt to co-opt the reigning intellectual zeitgeist — Carter’s so-called “malaise speech” in 1979, which drew on the writings of and reflected consultation with historian Christopher Lasch—ended in political disaster. And Carter’s initial diffidence toward liberal intellectuals left him with few defenders among them when things went awry.
Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, resumed the “alternative intellectuals” approach begun by fellow Republicans Nixon and Ford. Although Reagan was despised and derided by most liberal intellectuals, he did not share Nixon’s intense resentment toward them. He did, however, make use of the growing—if still quite small—conservative intelligentsia that had been gathering in Washington since the Nixon years. This was what journalist Theodore White called a “corps of intellectual outriders, absent in Republican politics since Theodore Roosevelt had given up the White House seventy-two years earlier.”
Though Reagan did not employ one particular “White House intellectual,” he did tap Martin Anderson—an alumnus of the Nixon White House and a member of Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board—to serve as an informal advisor on intellectual developments, and to provide a link to the world of conservative thought. Anderson also acted as a one-man job bank for conservative scholars: In the 1980 campaign, he had compiled a list of roughly 500 professors, think-tank scholars, and writers who supported Reagan; after the election, many of them filtered into administration jobs. In addition, the Heritage Foundation, a relatively new think tank, set up a computerized personnel system to help find conservatives to fill administration positions.
The list of pundits, experts, and intellectuals who worked in the Reagan administration is enormous: William Kristol, William Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Chester Finn, Dinesh D’Souza, Michael Ledeen, Peggy Noonan, Richard Perle, Peter Robinson, Peter Wallison, John Cogan, Murray Weidenbaum, Elliott Abrams, Doug Bandow, Peter Wehner, Michael Horowitz, Paul Wolfowitz, William Niskanen, Christopher DeMuth, and Terry Eastland, just to name a few. Most of these people served in positions too junior to have spent significant time with Reagan himself, yet they all felt his affinity for “idea people,” and many still cite his presidency as the epitome of a conservative administration. This infusion of conservative thinkers helped give the Reagan administration its flavor, and is one reason Reagan remains a favorite of conservative intellectuals to this day.
George H. W. Bush, in contrast, avoided selecting his political appointees from among academics and writers. In fact, he tended to avoid the conservative intelligentsia in general, preferring to cultivate the image of a down-to-earth pragmatist and manager. After the 1988 election, one Bush transition official told the Washington Post that “Our people don’t have agendas. They have mortgages.” This refusal to nurture the intellectuals ultimately hurt Bush, just as it had damaged Jimmy Carter’s standing on the left in the 1970s. Many of the leading conservative thinkers felt frozen out by Bush, and many Washington conservatives abandoned him. Some, including the__ New York Times’s__ William Safire and the American Enterprise Institute’s Joshua Muravchik and Ben Wattenberg, even ended up supporting his opponent in the 1992 election, Bill Clinton.
For his part, Clinton courted left-leaning intellectuals far more effectively than had fellow Democrats Carter and Johnson. Some received prominent appointments in Clinton’s administration, like Harvard political economist-turned-labor secretary Robert Reich. More noteworthy, however, was Clinton’s concerted effort to demonstrate his interest in the views of well-known public intellectuals—stroking their egos, and treating them as a constituency in themselves. In preparation for the 1996 State of the Union address, for example, Clinton aides compiled a briefing book full of ideas from writers as different as radio commentator Garrison Keillor and historian David Herbert Donald. Clinton also hosted White House dinners with scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alan Ehrenhalt, and Robert Putnam; he even took pains to flatter the intellectuals by letting reporters know whose books he was reading.
In his second term, Clinton hired the sharp-penned journalist Sidney Blumenthal—in part to help formulate policy, but also to sell Clinton’s agenda in Washington intellectual circles. As it turned out, Blumenthal was of greatest value during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when he worked with many liberal intellectuals to defend Clinton and got several noted historians to sign a petition saying they felt impeachment was historically and constitutionally inappropriate. The support Blumenthal helped generate —coming at a time when many analysts were ready to toll the death knell for Clinton’s political career—may well have helped save the Clinton presidency.
Clinton’s approach both exploited and intensified the partisan character of the American intellectual world. By the 1990s, both the left and the right had their own intellectuals, and even those not professionally expert in politics—like professors of literature and cultural critics—regularly involved themselves in partisan disputes. While most liberal American intellectuals no longer fanned radical student revolts, they had become radicalized in a different—more mundane and political—way, and had become dully reliable partisans. Their conservative counterparts, meanwhile, existed mostly in reaction to the liberals, and so were often nearly as predictable.
This gradual evolution of American intellectual culture helps to explain the reaction of the country’s liberal cultural and scholarly elite to George W. Bush—a response that was intensely and unremittingly negative from the moment he stepped on the national stage.
On paper, George W. Bush (Andover ’64, Yale ’68, Harvard M.B.A. ’75) might have held some appeal for American intellectuals. He certainly had more formal education, and at more highly regarded schools, than most American presidents. In practice, however, Bush was the epitome of everything the culturally liberal intellectuals despised. He was much more a Texas businessman—an oil man, no less—than a northeastern Ivy Leaguer. Both his personal instincts and his political ambitions led Bush to present himself as more redneck than blueblood: After he lost his first election—a 1978 congressional race, and the only election he ever lost—Bush vowed, as he would later put it, “never to get out-countried again.”
But his determination not to get “out-countried” did not mean that Bush was uninterested in engaging scholars and wonks. In an interview with Time magazine’s Walter Isaacson at the 2000 Republican Convention, Bush said, “My job is to get good thinkers and get the best out of them.” His approach to the campaign suggested this was more than mere rhetoric: In 1998, while contemplating a run for the White House, Bush met with Hoover Institution scholars over dinner at former Secretary of State George Shultz’s home. The encounter impressed Martin Anderson, who had collected intellectual support for Nixon and later Reagan. According to Anderson, the scholars “all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, this guy’s really good.’ ” From then on, Anderson and his colleagues helped Bush gain the support of conservative think-tank scholars and writers, which proved critical to his success in the 2000 Republican primaries.
But even as he pursued the usual Republican path of drawing on the conservative intellectual community that had developed as an alternative to the increasingly liberal world of the academy, Bush also cultivated an alternative to the alternative. He assembled a group of religiously inclined and culturally conservative writers and scholars who embodied what had come to be known as “compassionate conservatism”—a set of ideas that Bush put at the center of his 2000 campaign agenda. These thinkers argued that, to win elections, the right would need to do much more than offer a vision of a smaller federal government. Conservatives, they said, should speak to the concerns of the poorest and weakest, and take up the mantle of humanitarianism through conservative means. They called for conservative-minded approaches to dealing with poverty, education reform, and assisting the children of prisoners, among other causes—approaches that would take culture and not just economics seriously, and that would seek solutions beyond welfare checks. The core of their vision was fostering greater cooperation between government and local grassroots groups—including and especially religious groups, previously denied access to most federal support—in providing social services. Their ranks included Manhattan Institute scholar Myron Magnet, former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, University of Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky, and the University of Pennsylvania’s John DiIulio, as well as Michael Gerson—a congressional aide whom Bush hired as his chief speechwriter, and who imbued Bush’s rhetoric with compassionate-conservative themes.
Bush brought only two of these prominent compassionate-conservative thinkers into the White House—Gerson, who was his chief speechwriter during his first term and an important policy advisor during both terms, and DiIulio, who briefly headed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives during Bush’s first year in office. But Bush drew on the ideas that had emerged from the circle of compassionate-conservative thinkers throughout his eight years in the White House(something I observed first-hand, as a Bush domestic-policy advisor and deputy secretary of Health and Human Services).
Bush relied heavily on that close circle of thinkers, but he also went out of his way to forge links with the broader intellectual world. His approach reflected his M.B.A. training: He employed a more corporate model than previous presidents had, and explicitly assigned the role of intellectual outreach to one unit within the White House. Bush created an Office of Strategic Initiatives, to be headed by a deputy assistant to the president who would report to senior advisor Karl Rove. For most of Bush’s eight years in office, OSI was headed by Peter Wehner, a conservative writer and long-time protégé of former education secretary and drug czar William Bennett.
Wehner did not come to the White House with a defined intellectual persona or an outsized national reputation, as Moynihan or Schlesinger had. But he was known and respected among the conservative intellectual set, and proved well suited to act as a bridge between the administration and the world of ideas. Wehner saw his task as two-fold: to keep the president informed about developments in the intellectual world that might have implications for his decision-making, and to communicate the administration’s views and policy goals to intellectual elites in Washington and around the country. Wehner soon began the practice of sending mass e-mail messages to a large list of opinion leaders and scholars, making the president’s case at a level of detail that went far beyond the typical government document. He would often answer critics at length, or direct his readers’ attention to important new essays or articles. Unlike press releases or official communiqués, these messages did not go through the cumbersome White House clearance process; they were relatively informal, and therefore gave readers some fresh, genuine insight into the administration’s thinking.
Wehner was also responsible for keeping the president and his senior staff informed of debates about administration policy in the world of serious opinion writing. As White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten described the job to the Washington Post in 2007: “Pete has the luxury of not having a specific line [of] responsibility so he can step back and read all of the informed commentary, digest it and draw the right conclusions from it.” Wehner’s other activities included, as the Post put it, “organiz[ing] meetings for the president with historians and scholars, host[ing] a lecture series and put[ting] together luncheon discussions for White House staff members to talk about the Federalist Papers, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. or Alexis de Tocqueville.”
While his charge was not limited to the right, Wehner did work mainly with the conservative intellectual world, and made little headway in countering the larger liberal intelligentsia’s intense hatred toward Bush. He brought left-leaning historians and other liberal scholars (including David Hackett Fischer and David Kennedy) to meet with the president on occasion, and made an effort to engage Bush’s more thoughtful critics directly. But the general view among the smart set—that Bush was an untutored Texas cowboy—seemed only to worsen over time.
Bush himself contributed to that perception, of course. Part of his appeal to voters in both 2000 and 2004 was his regular-guy image, and his campaigns openly mocked the more urbane (if not effete) mannerisms of both Al Gore and John Kerry. This grated on many liberal intellectuals, who saw it as a kind of demagoguery. As Damon Linker of the New Republic put it in November 2009:
“Everything about Bush—from his economically libertarian and socially conservative policies to his swaggering gait, mannered Southern drawl, and studied inarticulateness—was intended to convey the message that he was “one of us,” an average American bringing his hard-won common sense to bear on the most challenging problems of our time, many if not all of which could be traced to the influence of the godless liberal elites who “really” run the country from their decadent enclaves in New York and Hollywood.“
Bush may have successfully used his regular-guy appeal to win the presidency, but it could not have been a surprise—indeed, it must surely have been, in part, his intention—that this approach would draw the ire of liberal intellectuals. Linker’s diatribe, and the broadly shared attitude it described, indicated the shrill partisanship of many on the intellectual left. But these objections were also reactions to cultural provocations. They represented a flare-up of the longstanding hostility between elitists and populists in American culture—a hostility that appears undiminished, even in the post-Bush era.
Apart from his fraught interactions with the left, Bush’s relationship with the right-leaning intelligentsia was also far from smooth. His compassionate-conservative agenda, for all its intellectual credentials, was not the preferred, limited-government approach of most conservative scholars and writers. And his efforts at outreach notwithstanding, Bush’s policies—particularly those involving domestic spending—alienated important elements of the conservative intellectual world.
As an institutional matter, Bush’s outreach to intellectuals could well serve as a model for future presidents (especially Republicans). The establishment of an office specifically tasked with such outreach, and given a formal place in the White House organizational structure, helped Bush avoid some of the difficulties previous administrations had faced with their court intellectuals — such as ill-defined responsibilities, or the lack of a clear channel for getting ideas to the president. But as a matter of substance and outcomes, Bush’s experience highlights the limits of intellectual outreach. Like other Republican presidents, he confronted a relentlessly hostile liberal intelligentsia; but unlike some Republican presidents, he sometimes chose sides within the conservative world—and so often divided, rather than strengthening and unifying, the right’s alternative intellectual infrastructure.
Bush did, however, continue the pattern by which Republican presidents actually use intellectuals and allow them to help define presidential agendas, while the Democrats often treat intellectuals as cultural ornaments. The first year of Barack Obama’s term suggests that he, too, will extend this pattern—and so also suggests that he could face real dangers in his relationship with the liberal intellectual elite.
Is Obama an Exception?
Barack Obama’s reception by academics and intellectuals could hardly have differed more from Bush’s. Of course, Obama certainly has the formal credentials to be embraced by the smart set: He is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, was editor of the law review at Harvard and a law professor at the University of Chicago, and authored a thoughtful (if youthful) memoir.
More important, however, is the fact that Obama shares the cultural predilections of many liberal intellectuals. The insight he offered up at a 2008 campaign fundraiser in San Francisco — that Pennsylvanians and Midwesterners “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” — inadvertently revealed a mind very much at home on the left flank of the culture wars. Other occasions have also highlighted Obama’s comfort among the intellectuals: Last year, when Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—perhaps the nation’s best-known African-American professor — was involved in a bizarre confrontation with the Cambridge Police Department, Obama strangely weighed in by publicly criticizing the cops and proclaiming that “Skip Gates is a friend.” It was the sort of response one might expect at a faculty meeting—but not from the president of a law-and-order nation that reveres its first responders.
Obama’s style and approach to decision-making in office have also won him kudos from intellectual observers who appreciate “his deliberateness, his empiricism, and his suspicion of easy answers,” as Paul Glastris wrote in Washington Monthly late in 2008. This easy praise from academics and the literati — praise that often seems to be driven as much by distaste for George W. Bush as admiration for his successor—has largely spared Obama the task of cultivating relationships with the intellectuals. While there is no shortage of Ph.D.s in his administration—most prominently among Peter Orszag’s staff at the Office of Management and Budget—Obama has no liaison to the intellectual world, formal or informal. He has closed down the Office of Strategic Initiatives, and has so far avoided explicit outreach to the academic world (aside from occasional meetings with historians—a longstanding White House tradition). When recently asked by a reporter about his reading habits, Obama replied: “I don’t get a chance to read things other than briefing books very often these days.” It is almost impossible to imagine that any of his recent predecessors would have given such an answer (or gotten away with it if he had); all made a point of showing off their reading lists to highlight their intellectual seriousness.
Curiously, Obama’s most famous meeting with public intellectuals actually involved conservatives. Shortly before his inauguration, he attended a dinner at the home of Washington Post columnist George Will; the other invitees were some of the most prominent gatekeepers of the conservative press, including Weekly Standard editor William Kristol and conservative columnists like the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and the New York Times’s David Brooks. According to one report, the evening was filled with “considerable wonkery and in-depth discussions of taxes.” It also earned the president-elect some good, if anonymous, reviews from some of the attendees, one of whom said: “He’s an articulate, smart guy.” After some grumbling from the left, the Obama team put together a meeting for liberal columnists the next morning. The whole incident showed both that Obama felt confident that he could hold his own among some of his smartest critics, and that he felt less of a need to reach out to liberal thought leaders whom he assumed would remain on his side.
This degree of both comfort and detachment, like so much of Obama’s governing style in his first year, suggests the expectation of indefinite good times ahead. It is not a style well suited to times of trial and difficulty, which inevitably arise in any presidency. In their tending to the intellectual community, Obama’s predecessors understood that they were building links and foundations that would prove useful when the going got tough. The two other recent presidents who failed to do so—Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush—both paid a political price.
Obama, of course, begins from a position of much greater strength in his relationship with liberal academics and writers. But as George W. Bush learned from some conservative intellectuals, disappointed former supporters can be at least as dangerous as outright political enemies. President Obama would be foolish to assume that he can count on the support of liberal intellectuals regardless of his actions in the coming years (especially when it comes to his foreign-policy decisions, which have already stoked liberal discontent). Nor should he underestimate the damage he would suffer if the cultural and academic elites who have backed him so far suddenly turned their knives against him. Precisely because Obama’s presidency rests, in part, on his status as a cultural phenomenon, he would pay a heavy price for losing their support.
Obama would therefore be wise to learn some lessons—both positive and negative — from his predecessors’ relationships with the intellectual world. From Kennedy comes the insight that an in-house intellectual can play a useful role, even if largely for show. From Johnson, Obama should learn never to assume that liberal intellectuals will always be on his side in changing times. Nixon provides a useful model for reaching across the aisle to bring in a noted centrist intellectual—one who might provide Obama a counterweight to some of his own White House’s regnant orthodoxies.
Or Obama might follow Ford’s approach, and call upon an orthodox thinker of his own party—but one who would bring in some top minds, of differing opinions, to consult on a regular basis. Reagan could teach him that friendly intellectuals can be useful as political appointees—and that drawing them in can greatly improve his standing, both in a crunch and over the long term. Looking to George W. Bush’s example, Obama might consider formalizing some structure for communicating with prominent opinion leaders—and so break through the bubble that often traps presidents and isolates them from the outside world.
These approaches, for all their differences, do offer one lesson in common: that a president ignores the intellectual community at his peril. And the trajectory of this tale of intellectuals and presidents suggests a deeper, and perhaps more troubling, lesson about American society: that we now live in an era of distinctly blue and red intellectuals—of two competing realms of ideas, on opposite sides of a culture war that, in some important respects, is more heated than ever.
This polarization of public intellectuals makes policy formulation—not to mention governing—far more difficult. As both Bush and now Obama have witnessed, ideas generated by one side are automatically—and, thanks to the internet, immediately—derided by the idea generators on the other side. In an ideal situation, intellectuals could help guide a nation facing seemingly intractable divisions—by cooling passions with reasoned argument, or proposing new and innovative solutions. A world divided into red and blue intellectuals, however, is more apt to add to, rather than diminish, both our challenges and our divisions. This development portends ill not only for Obama, but also for our ability to address the many complex problems we will face in the years to come.
On this front, as on a host of others, President Obama’s first year in office suggests that he believes his administration will be an exception—that he alone can find the easy solutions to problems that routinely vexed the men who came before him. History, as ever, suggests otherwise.