U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Speaking Truth to Power (or Whither the White House Intellectual?, Part III)

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, 2009, I wrote a post about the White House intellectual-in-residence, a figure who was a part of the presidencies of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, but then more or less disappeared from the scene. Later presidents, of course, consulted intellectuals in other ways.

A few months later, Tim Lacy blogged about an early appearance of intellectuals in this White House: the private dinner that Obama had held with a series of historians on June 30, 2009. U.S. News reported that guests included “Michael Beschloss, H. W. Brands, Douglas Brinkley, Robert Dallek, and Doris Kearns Goodwin.” Unlike U.S. News, Tim wasn’t particularly impressed with this line-up. Nor was I. As I wrote in a comment on Tim’s post:

[T]hese 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.

Well it turns out that I may have overestimated the capacity of the D.C. “bubble.”

One of the other guests that evening turns out to have been Garry Wills, who was a potentially more interesting interlocutor than those mentioned by US News. A few days ago, Wills put up a post on the New York Review of Books blog (who knew that the NYRB had a blog?) that casts more light on last year’s White House historians dinner:

It is time for me to break a silence I have observed for over a year, against my better judgment. On June 30, 2009, I and eight other historians were invited to a dinner with President Obama and three of his staffers, to discuss what history could teach him about conducting the presidency. I was asked shortly after by several news media what went on there, and I replied that it was off the record. I have argued elsewhere that the imposition of secrecy to insure that the president gets “candid advice” is a cover for something else—making sure that what is said about the people’s business does not reach the people. But I went along this time, since the president said that he wanted this dinner to be a continuing thing, and I thought that revealing its first contents would jeopardize the continuation of a project that might be a source of information for him.

But there has been no follow up on the first dinner, and certainly no sign that he learned anything from it. The only thing achieved has been the silencing of the main point the dinner guests tried to make—that pursuit of war in Afghanistan would be for him what Vietnam was to Lyndon Johnson. At least four or five of the nine stressed this. Nothing else rose to this level of seriousness or repeated concern.

There’s more, of course. As the kids say, read the whole thing.

The main thrust of Wills’s post is the point that Afghanistan is likely to become Obama’s (and his successors’) Vietnam…if it hasn’t already. I largely agree with this assessment.

But there’s also a lot here that pertains to our discussions of this White House and the role of intellectuals in it, from its deep devotion to secrecy (despite early noises about transparency) to its apparent lack of follow-through (this turned out not to be the first of many such dinners).

I was also struck by the willingness of these very establishment-oriented presidential historians (other than Wills, who is a lifelong gadfly) to speak truth to power (though, to be fair, Wills says that four or five of nine guests emphasized Afghanistan….so it’s possible that he’s talking about himself plus three as-yet-unrevealed attendees).

The Afghanistan War seems to me to be a classic quagmire, a conflict that will suck untold blood and money and accomplish little or nothing, while encouraging the U.S. state to violate civil liberties at home and commit war crimes abroad. The least bad option remains, as it has been for years, withdrawing ASAP. This view–though common enough on the internets–is still seen in “serious” policy circles as fantastically woolly-headed and radical. “Serious” debate about Afghanistan consists of arguing COIN vs. Antiterrorism, or debating how much more we should spend or how many more troops we should commit.

At any rate, it seems as if the historical profession acquitted itself better than I had feared that night, while Obama did (and has since done) depressingly worse.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for pointing us in the direction of the WIlls post, Ben. It seems pretty clear why Wills and other dissenting historians weren’t invited back: their advice was unwanted.

  2. I wonder if any of them had the guts to tell him the whole exercise was bunk. Anyway, it strikes me as overrating their importance either to criticize them as the establisment or to praise them as speaking truth to power. These folks hardly constitute the historical profession. They are Beltway pundits who happen to have history PhDs or whose day job is writing about the past. Well, most of ’em.

    Leaving that issue aside, the real conern to me is that this exercise seems to be inspired by an attitude to the past that most professional historians would surely discourage; what Hegel dismissed as the “pragmatic” mode of history. That is, the old idea that the reason to study history is to learn from it, which is why it was especially recommended for statesmen. As Hegel notes, if history has any lesson, it is that no one learns history’s lessons. Wills is surely aware of the irony, but I’m skeptical any of the others involved is.

  3. I think Obama wants to take America down the same road the Soviet Union went in 1917.I used to believe that he like Former President Bush wanted to do whats best for the country,but since he has been in for the 20 months the economy is still bad,we are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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