U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Whither The White House Intellectual? Part II—A Disappointing Answer?

In January Ben Alpers provided a run down of past White House Intellectuals-in-Residence. In that post he openly wondered whether the Obama administration would appoint a particular person—in the tradition of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—to fill the position.

Since Schlesinger was a historian, and one who loved intellectual history, I too naturally wondered whether historians would play some part in the intellectual climate of the current administration. I received an answer, at least in part, when I saw this U.S. News & World Report story by Kenneth T. Walsh. (Tip: Don’t read the comments on the article; they’re depressing.)

Here are some excerpts from the piece (bolds mine):

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President Obama has found another way to break out of the White House “bubble”—holding private discussions with eminent historians who have studied the successes and failures of his predecessors. His goal is to better understand what has worked and what has failed in the past as he makes policy today.

Obama held a dinner at the White House residence with nine such scholars on June 30, and it turned out to be what one participant described as a “history book club, with the president as the inquisitor.” Among those attending were Michael Beschloss, H. W. Brands, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek, and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Obama asked the guests to discuss the presidencies that they were most familiar with and to give him insights into what remains relevant to the problems of today.

At one point, the discussion turned to whether Obama was trying to do too much too fast and whether he might overload the political circuits of Congress. …At least one historian said it’s wise to push for such a bold agenda because the country is eager for change.

Participants were impressed with Obama’s intellectual curiosity and his willingness to listen. And he told aides afterward that he wants to hold more such dinners to broaden his perspective.

Other presidents have held discussions with outside experts, but such outreach seems particularly important to Obama.

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Of course I’m pleased that President Obama chose to consult with historians for advice. I’m not sure, however, that he has to limit his inquiry to historians of the presidency. Why not go with specialist historians on the issues? For instance, why not consult with historians of medicine on health care, historians of the New Deal on public programs, historians of science or the environment on energy issues, and historians of business on the effectiveness of regulatory schemes?

I guess, as an historian, I’m sick and tired of the same old names being trotted out as “the experts” on whether a president can succeed relative to his/her predecessors—namely historians of politics and the presidency. It’s almost a joke. In my opinion historians of the presidency are closer to being excellent biographers than they are they are specialists on the issues that confront a president. Consulting with presidential historians on the issues is not much better than reading a solid history survey text.

As a supporter of the current administration, and someone who is generally pleased with its overall intellectual acumen, this is disappointing. Specialties exist for a reason: namely, because the issues are complex and require a deep look at the context and details to understand why policies might fail or succeed. Yes, the politics of getting policies implemented matter. But so does the starting point. If politics is about the practical, isn’t it wise to have a smart practical plan in place before you turn to thinking about how to get the policy passed? You have to be able to show how something can be the solution to a problem before you think about how to maneuver it between legislators. It would seem, then, than consulting with historians of the presidency, about their politics at least, is a case of putting the cart before the practical policy horse. – TL

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P.S.—This Chronicle Brainstorm blog post by Stan Katz highlights some of the dangers of using and abusing history in terms of policy formulation.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Thanks for an interesting post, Tim! I totally missed this story. And I share your reaction to it. Not simply because, as you say, historians of the presidency are not necessarily the first group of people to whom a president should turn, but also because these historians of the presidency are precisely the people whose input Beltway insiders already listen to obsessively. If all he wants to do is survey the opinions of Michael Beschloss, H. W. Brands, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Obama could have saved the taxpayers money and watched PBS’s NewsHour for a month.

    What I find most distressing is that the President apparently believes that speaking to these people represents breaking out of the DC “bubble.” With the exception of Brands, all of these scholars spend much of their lives within the bubble. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Doris Kearns Goodwins’s, Michael Beschloss’s, and Doug Brinkley’s careers without it. A policy elite that only talks to itself is distressing enough. A policy elite that only talks to itself and believes that its reaching to the outside is even more depressing.

    So though I agree with Tim that it would be great for Obama to discuss, for example, health care reform with historians of social policy (can we get him Alice O’Connor’s cell number?), even a slightly more outside-the-loop group of generalists (expanding the category just a bit beyond “presidential” historians) would be nice. How about a dinner with, e.g., Andrew Bacevich, Rick Perlstein, Alan Brinkley, Lizabeth Cohen and Tom Sugrue? All have track records as public intellectuals; all are major scholars, and, with the exception obviously of Perlstein, have prominent jobs at famous universities. They would thus pass the Beltway “seriousness” test. But each would be more likely to tell the president something he didn’t already know (or think that he knows) than his last group of guests.

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