TCS Daily

White House Brains

By Seth Leibsohn - June 6, 2002 12:00 AM

At a recent panel on Dr. Tevi Troy's book held at the American Enterprise Institute (the panel taking note of Troy's book consisted of such public intellectuals as David Frum, William Galston, Robert Goldwin, William Kristol, and Ben Wattenberg), Troy said that he could sum up the thesis of his book in two words: "Intellectuals matter." Certainly Troy's statement is true but so, too, does Troy's book matter-endorsements for Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians come from such intellectual heavyweights as Martin Anderson, Michael Barone, John DiIulio, Norm Ornstein, and Stephen Hess.

The cover of Troy's book is graced with the pictures of two of the most dynamic and well known White House intellectuals in modern memory: Pat Moynihan (who served John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon before undertaking a public career in electoral politics) and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (the double-Pulitzer Prize winning author who most famously served John F. Kennedy). The subtext running through Troy's book is, however, not so much that "intellectuals matter" as it is that presidents who do not make good use of their public intellectuals will ultimately perform worse than those who do.

And Troy's book traces the efforts, effects, and uses of these intellectuals from the brain trust of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency to the present George W. Bush administration. It is about presidents and intellectual matters; it is about campaigns and intellectual "matter," of which The American Heritage Dictionary gives a fairly good definition in the realm of physics that is also useful in the realm of intellect: "that which is in itself undifferentiated and formless and which, as the subject of change and development, receives form and becomes substance." Troy gives that description color and brings it alive in Intellectuals and the American Presidency.

To get one piece of conventional wisdom out of the way, contrary to the common perception, George W. Bush's presidency is not one that is exclusively run as a technocratic Fortune 500 company modeled on some Harvard Business School management plan. Following a new model, President Bush has not handpicked one or two public intellectuals to advise him and reach out to the academic communities. The Bush White House is honeycombed with intellectuals and well-published authors who had reputations in their own right before being tapped by President Bush. A short list includes Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Doug Feith, Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Eugene Hickok, Wade Horn, David Kuo, Leslie Lenkowsky, Lawrence Lindsey, Condoleezza Rice, Joe Shattan, John P. Walters, Pete Wehner, and Paul Wolfowitz.

The conservative movement, it should be noted-as Troy does note-has come a long way since the 1950s and 1960s when conservative public intellectuals could fit into a telephone booth and their influence was confined to a few college classrooms and the pages of National Review, e.g., people like William F. Buckley, Jr., Wilmoore Kendall, and Harry Jaffa. Indeed, Richard M. Nixon had to bring a "Kennedy-Johnson Democrat into a policy making position" in the form of Pat Moynihan. By the 1970s, as the neo-conservative movement grew, conservative intellectuals gained in prominence and in audience. And influence. If there is any doubt about the influence intellectuals can have on a president-or candidate-Ronald Reagan's experience in the 1970s should dispel that. According to Irving Kristol, it was Arthur Laffer, Robert Mundell, Jude Wanniski, Jack Kemp (the neo-conservatives' favorite politician), and only one or two others who persuaded Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s to embrace tax cuts and growth as economic policy. But for them, "Reaganomics" would not have entered the lexicon and the terms "tax cuts" and "Reagan" would never be uttered in the same sentence, or paragraph.

Troy organizes his book chronologically, telling the tale of intellectuals and their presidents, beginning in earnest with the case of John F. Kennedy and Arthur M. Schelsinger, Jr. and moving through Lyndon B. Johnson and Eric Goldman; Richard M. Nixon and Pat Moynihan; Gerald Ford and Robert Goldwin; Jimmy Carter and his failures of intellectual opportunity; Ronald Reagan and the rise of conservative intellectuals (beginning with "Reagan's one-man think tank," Martin Anderson); George H.W. Bush and his intellectuals from Dan Quayle's Bill Kristol to Jim Pinkerton and Roger Porter; Bill Clinton and Bill Galston; and, finally, George W. Bush.

Troy also provides an appendix of advice for future presidents and candidates, a useful list of the "dos" and "don'ts" when "employing intellectuals in the White House." The first two advisories are, perhaps, the best summaries of the use and misuse of intellectuals in the White House: "Don't ignore intellectuals. It can come back to haunt you." See Lyndon Johnson's experiences. "Don't be an intellectual. The American people might like their politicians to consult intellectuals, but they won't vote for eggheads." See Adlai Stevenson's and Jimmy Carter's experiences.

Troy, currently holds the number two position in the White House Domestic Policy Council and is uniquely qualified to have written on this topic. He served both the House Republican Policy Committee and then-U.S. Senator John Ashcroft as an intellectual liaison and "ideas man" as well as in the Department of Labor before joining the Domestic Policy Council. Intellectuals and the American Presidency is an expanded and reworked version of his doctoral dissertation that reads more like a combination of Peggy Noonan anecdotes and Dinesh D'Souza analysis.

This is a very readable book for both those in and out of government as well as for those in and out of "the business." It is, at once, interesting personality description and previously untold history mixed with intriguing analysis. It is the kind of book, for Troy, that the 1979 Commentary essay, Dictatorships and Double Standards, was for Jeane Kirkpatrick-that is to say, it will catapult him to the attention of more elected officials who will want to hire him for his advice rather than read him in order to nod their heads in agreement with his analysis.

Seth Leibsohn is the Director of Policy at Empower America, a public policy organization based in Washington, DC.

TCS Daily Archives