U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Whither the White House Intellectual?

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.

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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.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Excellent post Ben. I think you are correct regarding the “cult of the expert” being the driving force of the White House intellectual-in-residence. This was perhaps best made clear by a 1962 JFK speech, probably written by Schlesinger:

    “Most of us are conditioned… to have a political viewpoint – Republican or Democrat, liberal, conservative, or moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems… that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgements, which do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred this country so often in the past. [They] deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men…”

    Although Jimmy Carter never had an intellectual-in-residence, he invited numerous thinkers to Camp David as he prepared his infamous “crisis of confidence” speech. One such person was historian and irascible social critic Christopher Lasch, who had just written _The Culture of Narcissism_. Carter’s confidant Pat Cadell, who fancied himself an intellectual of sorts, had read Lasch’s book and secured the invitation. Carter’s reflections on the American malaise sounded familiar to readers of Lasch’s musings on the nation’s diminished expectations. Of course, Carter’s speech is widely remembered as politically disastrous, a dour reading of America that Reagan’s optimism easily trumped. So perhaps Lasch’s contribution is a sign of the end of the trusted expert? Cheers.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

    I find the reputation of Carter’s Malaise Speech (in which he, famously, never used the word “malaise”) to be fascinating. In the short run, the speech was actually a success. Carter’s dismal poll numbers began to rise in its wake. The New York Times even published a story on July 18, 1979 (behind a paywall, though free if you or your institution is a subscriber) that was headlined, “Speech Lifts Carter Rating to 37%; Public Agrees on Confidence Crisis; Responsive Chord Struck.”

    Of course, when a 37% percent approval rating is good news, you need more than an effective speech to dig out your presidency.

    Nevertheless, I sometimes think that we are too prone to see the Carter presidency through the lens of the Reagan presidency. Reagan was enormously successful selling his presidency with a message of sunny optimism. Therefore (the implicit reasoning goes) Carter’s biggest mistake must have been his pessimism, embodied by this speech.

    In fact, a large part of Carter’s appeal, such as it was, was his moral seriousness. And even in the second half of the Carter presidency, there was a market for this tone among the American public (if not enough of one to overcome the effects of stagflation and the more general sense of the Carter Administration’s ineffectiveness).

  3. Kevin Mattson’s next book is focused entirely on the “malaise” speech. I’ve been looking forward to it for a while; according to amazon.com, it will come out in the middle of this year.

    I, too, have long been infatuated with that speech and the reaction to it. I’ve often thought that Carter would someday be vindicated as a prescient prophet for daring to speak an obvious truth. It’s been a long time since the U.S. was characterized by any sort of positive intellectual and emotional tone, and sooner or later we’ll have to face that. Instead, Americans seem to prefer proclaiming over and over again, in a really loud voice, that nothing is wrong. (One small but particularly grating–to me–example of this trend was the perfunctory repetition during the presidential election by both major candidates that our health care system is “the best in the world.” Well then why is everyone trying to fix it?) But if Carter hasn’t gotten credit for the speech in the last thirty years, I doubt he ever will.

  4. AH: Great anecdote about Lasch. So even though Ben asserts that Carter had no WHIR (White House Intellectual in Residence), would you go as far as to say that Pat Cadell, or Lasch by proxy, was really Carter’s WHIR?

    Ben: I agree totally on the viewing of Carter through the lens of Reagan. There’s a tendency to do that with all “next presidents” (e.g. viewing Bush 41 through the lens of Clinton, or what we’ll do with Bush 43 when Obama is more established).

    If we take a longer view of the presidency, couldn’t we make a pretty strong argument that many of the presidencies (or presidential terms) of the 20th century have operated with either a WHIR or WHIsR? We could start with Wilson, then make the case that FDR’s Brain/s Trust operated through both his and a substantial part of Truman’s presidency. Does Tevi Troy take his story that far back, or does he begin with JFK’s “best and the brightest”? My hunch is that this is primarily a twentieth-century phenomenon.

    As for the decline or disuse of the WHIR, with either Carter or Reagan (what of William Bennett—whether you like him or not?), perhaps it was seen as an extraneous expenditure in an era (>1980) of increasing cost-consciousness in government? [I offer this as an alternative to the almost stereotypical view of Republican presidents being anti-intellectual.] Or perhaps presidents suddenly realized that they could utilize the ideas of intellectuals without employing them directly in “the court” (i.e. think tanks)?

    Also, doesn’t the notion of a WHIR assume a kind of narrow definition of intellectual associated with the WH? I mean, believe that many members of the incoming administration could fulfill that role if it existed, but they simply have other official positions (e.g. Sunstein)?

    – TL

  5. Interesting observations and questions, Tim.

    Troy’s book concerns the place of intellectuals in modern White Houses. Though he begins his book with Schlesinger, as the first WHIR (and acknowledges that intellectuals had played important roles in earlier administrations), he goes on to cover the WHIR-less Carter, Reagan, Bush 41, and Clinton administrations, as well as the early years of Bush 43.

    Troy acknowledges that none of these later presidents had a WHIR of the Schlesinger-through-Goldwin sort, but explains the absence of the WHIRs in rather personal terms (reflecting the book’s fairly traditional and narrow political-historical frame): Carter had a sui generis political philosophy. Not indebted to any particular ideological or intellectual group, Carter, Troy argues, decided to more or less “go it alone,” and his administration suffered as a consequence.

    Troy argues that Reagan didn’t have–and didn’t need–a WHIR for the opposite reason: he was such an embodiment of the conservative movement that he had a natural intellectual constituency that staffed his administrations (though Troy acknowledges that there were many internecine fights among conservatives during the Reagan years).

    Troy portrays George H.W. Bush as caught between the desire to be less ideological than Reagan and the criticism that he lacked “the vision thing.” Troy seems to suggest that Bush’s desire not to seem ideological (and his lack of vision) led him not to appoint any public intellectuals to prominent positions.

    Clinton gets high marks from Troy for very successfully managing his relationship with intellectuals (though Troy also comes close to endorsing Richard Posner’s indictment of the partisan nature of most intellectuals’ support for Clinton during the impeachment fight). Sidney Blumenthal is cited as playing the ambassador-to-the-intellectuals role that earlier WHIRs had played, but he’s not quite a WHIR himself.

  6. Spelling should be Pat Caddell, not Cadell. He was Carter’s pollster as he’d been McGovern’s, and if he’s being grouped with Schlesinger and Goldman (neither of whom ever worked as Hunter Thompson’s sidekick on nightclub stages like Caddell did), then H.R. Haldeman, who among other things was Nixon’s polls guy, might as well be too.

    (Little-known Nixon fact: he once sort of auditioned Russell Kirk to be the WH intellectual. Their conversation is on a tape available to researchers at the usual places.)

    It’s interesting to read about the thoroughly forgotten Goldwin, and to read that Rumsfeld, probably more hated by the liberal intelligentsia than any politico in recent history (except maybe for Cheney, who studied for a PhD once upon a time), was the guy who brought him into the Ford White House.

    Thomas Frank might have had a shot at being the Schlesinger or Goldman of the Obama WH, had it not been for that controversy last spring when our new President seemingly spun a variation on the “What’s The Matter With Kansas” thesis in San Francisco.

    But then again, the WH intellectual is traditionally expected to break bread in certain Georgetown households. Picture Frank exchanging repartee with Ben and Sally. Just picture it.

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