U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Obama And American Intellectuals

We’ve talked about the idea of a “White House Intellectual” before at USIH, here and here. On a related note, Tevi Troy, author of Intellectuals and The American Presidency and Hudson Institute Senior Fellow, talks about Obama’s relationship (direct and otherwise) with America’s intellectuals. Troy believes Barack Obama might be the president most respected by intellectuals since Woodrow Wilson. It’s a long piece (there’s much more at the link), but here are some passages of interest from Troy’s article:

[This new class of] public intellectuals [constitutes], 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.
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. …This influx of students and faculty [into higher education] 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.
John Kennedy understood the glamour and mystique that intellectuals could bring to a White House.
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.

And here’s where Troy’s politics enter:

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.

And now back to straight history (mostly):

Nixon’s in-house intellectual was a thorn in the side of many liberals: Daniel Patrick Moynihan. …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.
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.
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. …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.
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.
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 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.
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. …In practice, however, Bush was the epitome of everything the culturally liberal intellectuals despised. …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 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. …Bush brought only two of these prominent compassionate-conservative thinkers into the White House — [Michael] Gerson, who was his chief speechwriter during his first term and an important policy advisor during both terms, and [John] DiIulio, who briefly headed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives during Bush’s first year in office.
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.