As we prepare to inaugurate a new president in two days, I have been thinking about one once common White House role that looks as if it will go unfilled, yet again, in the Obama administration: the White House Intellectual-in-Residence.
From John F. Kennedy through Gerald Ford, our Presidents had a designated aide whose job, whatever his title, was largely to be a kind of court philosopher. Presidents had, of course, long consulted academics and intellectuals. But Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s position in the Kennedy White House was something new.
Schlesinger had, of course, already established himself both as an academic historian and as a partisan Democratic public intellectual. And he had been active in the Kennedy campaign. But after Kennedy’s victory in November, 1960, nobody in JFK’s inner circle seemed to know what to do with Schlesinger. In early January 1961, Schlesinger wrote a memo to the President Elect, proposing that it might be useful to have “someone in the White House concerned with long-term projects, definition and presentation of programs and policy, independent program review, and the like.”1 Schlesinger’s offer was accepted: he was made a Special Assistant to the President, with very open-ended duties.
After JFK’s assassination, Schlesinger’s White House days were numbered; he and LBJ had apparently never gotten along. He tendered his resignation the day after the assassination, but Johnson convinced him to stay on. But in January of 1964, Schlesinger left the White House. Johnson, however, decided that he, too, needed an intellectual-in-residence, so he asked Eric Goldman, an historian at Princeton University, to come on board as Schlesinger’s replacement.
By this time the press had begun to talk explicitly about the role of the White House “intellectual in residence” that Schlesinger had invented and Goldman was now embodying. Unlike Schlesinger who was close to the Kennedys at the time he joined the White House staff, Goldman was never close to LBJ and the relationship became dysfunctional well before Goldman’s eventual, stormy departure in mid-1966. Goldman was then replaced by John P. Roche, Chair of the Department of Politics at Brandeis. But Roche also didn’t work out, departing in mid-1968. Even at the time, LBJ’s difficult relationships with his intellectuals-in-residence were read as indicative of a broader rift between the White House and American thinkers. “Do President Johnson and the nation’s intellectuals have a mutual distrust of each other?,” asked the lede of a New York Times article on Goldman’s departure.2
But Johnson’s difficulties with Goldman and Roche did not kill off the White House intellectual. One of the more surprising appointments that Richard Nixon made when he entered office in 1969 was that of Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a special assistant on urban affairs. Moynihan, a lifelong Democrat, had begun his career in politics, first in the gubernatorial administration of Averell Harriman in New York, and then as Assistant Secretary of Labor under Kennedy and Johnson, in which position he wrote “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” better known as the Moynihan Report. After leaving the White House, Moynihan directed the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard and MIT. Moynihan’s portfolio in the Nixon White House was a little more clearly defined than had been those of his predecessors. Nonetheless, in addition to bringing expertise in urban affairs, the Moynihan pick was designed to reach out to other intellectuals (hardly a core Nixon constituency) and thus show that this was a new Nixon. Moynihan’s tenure lasted two years and is best remembered for his comment that racial relations in the U.S. would benefit from a period of “benign neglect.” Unlike his predecessors in the Johnson administration, Moynihan left the White House fairly amicably. But though Nixon considered asking Irving Kristol or Herman Kahn to replace Moynihan, his presidency came to its early end without designating another intellectual-in-residence.
When Gerald Ford took office in the summer of 1974, Donald Rumsfeld, a former Congressman from Illinois and an early supporter of Ford’s successful bid to become House Minority Leader back in the 1960s, returned from a stint as Ambassador to NATO to become the new president’s Chief of Staff. Rumsfeld brought along with him Robert Goldwin, who would become the Ford Administration’s intellectual-in-residence. Goldwin had been advising and writing speeches for Rumsfeld in Brussels. But their relationship went back more than a decade. As a graduate student studying with Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago, Goldwin had directed the Public Affairs Conference Center, which had brought academics (including many fellow Straussians) together with many business and political leaders to discuss pressing issues of the day. Among the political connections Goldwin had made through his conference center were Rumsfeld and the liberal Republican business executive Charles Percy, on whose unsuccessful Illinois gubernatorial campaign Goldwin served. After receiving his PhD in the mid-1960s, Goldwin took a position at Kenyon College and then became Dean at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, before deciding to leave academia to become Rumsfeld’s NATO assistant.
In the Ford White House, Goldwin set up meetings between the new president and intellectuals modeled on his public affairs conferences. But Ford often seemed to have little interest in having an intellectual-in-residence. And Goldwin, like Leo Strauss himself, rejected the description “intellectual”: “There is something fishy about the word ‘intellectual,'” he told the journal Science in 1975. “I think of ‘intellectuals’ as people who have a real distaste, sometimes even contempt, for the common sense approach, which is fundamentally the political approach.” On a White House staff that soon became rather contentiously divided among competed nodes of authority, Goldwin was clearly in the camp of Rumsfeld and his assistant, and later successor as Chief of Staff, Dick Cheney. Cheney in particular often seemed genuinely excited by the ideas being generated by Goldwin’s academic and public intellectual contacts outside the White House, most especially Irving Kristol, who kept up a voluminous correspondence with Goldwin. Goldwin left the Ford White House in September 1976.
But Robert Goldwin would be the last White House intellectual-in-residence. Carter never appointed anyone to this informal position. Nor was it revived under Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, or Bush 43 (though each administration had intellectuals of various sorts on board in other positions). And though Barack Obama has long enjoyed the support of a number of prominent academics and public intellectuals—from Lawrence Lessig to Cass Sunstein to Samantha Power—there’s been no indication that the Obama White House will revive the post created originally for Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
The designated White House intellectual-in-residence may have marked a particular moment in the American presidency. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford had very different relationships with and attitudes toward intellectuals in general. Kennedy cultivated them. Johnson and Nixon could be quite hostile to them. Ford quite indifferent. But each felt the need to maintain this peculiar institution created by JFK. And their predecessors and successors—many of whom encouraged more active dialogue between intellectuals and the White House—did not.
What distinguished these four presidencies was not, then, a shared, positive attitude toward intellectuals. The phenomenon of the White House intellectual-in-residence may have, instead, been a kind of apotheosis of the celebration of expertise in post-war American political culture. White House intellectuals could burnish the court of the imperial presidency. But as both that vision of the presidency and the status of intellectuals—and social scientific experts in general—began to wane, the logic of this never-entirely-logical post faded as well.
1 Quoted in Tevi Troy, Intellectuals and the American Presidency (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), 27. This is the only monograph devoted to the subject of the White House intellectual. Its author, Tevi Troy, holds a PhD in American Civilization from Texas, but has spent his career in Washington working first for then Sen. John Ashcroft and, for the last eight years, for the Bush Administration. He is currently the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. The book is serious scholarship, well-researched and well-written, though in certain ways it is marked by its author’s political inclinations and career. Needless to say, it was very helpful in putting this blog entry together!
2 “Johnson Changes His Intellectuals,” New York Times, September 11, 1966.
3 “Robert A. Goldwin: Bridge Between Thinkers and Doers,” Science, New Series, Vol. 187, No. 4173 (Jan. 24, 1975), p. 239.