Eggheads in The White House
The role of the intellectual: an interview with author Tevi Troy.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Tevi Troy is author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians?. He talked to NRO last year about his book and what he’s learned about eggheads in the White House. Intellectuals and the American Presidency has recently been released in paperback.

Kathryn Jean Lopez:
In a nutshell, what is your book about?

Tevi Troy: It’s
about the strategies presidents use to appeal to intellectuals. It is a history
of how each White House since 1960, from Kennedy through Clinton, has dealt
with the American intellectual community. Some, as you can imagine, deal better
than others.

Lopez: Is there
a message?

Troy: “Intellectuals
matter.” Intellectuals help shape the perception of elected officials,
both short term in the media, and long term in the history books. As a result,
it is in politicians’ interests to woo the intellectuals. Intellectuals, however,
often fail to realize this. As a result, the other key lesson is that intellectuals
should not sell themselves too easily to the presidents who look to them.

Lopez: What is an

Troy: When I talk
about intellectuals, I’m generally talking about public intellectuals, relatively
well-known generalists who speak or write for a living, are comfortable talking
about most subjects, but always inject their own worldviews into their various
endeavors. But there is something that David Brooks calls the “intellectual
continuum,” which starts at the top with public intellectuals, then widens
to writers for highbrow magazines — The New Yorker, the Atlantic,
Commentary — then widens to the professorate, then finally reaches
down to the general educated reader, who reads the product of the public intellectuals
and the highbrow magazines. So when presidents reach out to the people at the
top of the continuum, they are hoping to get positive feedback that reaches
those at the bottom of the continuum.

Lopez: What presidents
have been intellectuals?

Troy: I don’t think
we’ve had an intellectual as president since Woodrow Wilson, who was a college
professor and then president of Princeton before getting elected as governor
of New Jersey and then president. But we’ve had some presidents who were very
smart, and other who were very comfortable with intellectuals. John F. Kennedy,
obviously, was very comfortable with intellectuals, Bill Clinton was quite at
home with intellectuals and loved having long bull sessions with them. Ronald
Reagan, although he’s frequently derided as someone not very academically oriented,
was very comfortable with intellectuals, and liked having idea people around
him and staffing his administration.

Lopez: Who is the
book written for?

Troy: It’s for the
general educated reader. Library Journal recommended my book for “those
interested in the presidency and the history of ideas.” Ben Wattenberg
was more expansive, recommending it for “intellectuals, presidents, and
the rest of us.”

Lopez: Who are some
of the heroes of your book?

Troy: People who
come off well in my book are the presidents who have known how to deal with
intellectuals — John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan. Arthur Schlesinger,
Jr., who served under Kennedy is not a hero so much as a model of intellectual
ambassador that other administration have tried to emulate. Another hero is
Gerald Ford, who came into office under very difficult circumstances following
Richard Nixon’s resignation. Ford hired political scientist Bob Goldwin to hold
idea seminars with top scholars. These idea seminars helped anchor the Ford
administration and, even though Ford lost his 1976 election bid, he came far
closer than anyone expected him to. He also helped hold the country together
during a very difficult period.

Lopez: Are there
any villains in your book?

Troy: There are
no villains per se, but a number of people come off poorly. Eric Goldman, who
worked for Lyndon Johnson, could never decide whether his loyalties lay with
the administration he worked for or his friends in the intellectual community.
These two groups diverged at the White House Festival on the Arts, which Goldman
organized, but became an albatross after numerous intellectuals boycotted the
event in protest of the Vietnam War. Even worse, some of the attendees protested
the war at the festival, circulating an anti-war petition. Unsurprisingly, Goldman
left the White House a scant 10 weeks after the festival fiasco and then wrote
a bitter memoir of his time in the Johnson White House.

Jimmy Carter also comes
off poorly. Although he was very smart — he was one of the highest IQ presidents
last century — he had a rough time defining what he stood for, and refused
to reach out to the intellectuals who could help him refine his message. Mix
that with a recession and a hostage crisis and you get a one-term presidency.

Lopez: Do Republicans
or Democrats make out better in your book?

Troy: While Democrats
have certain natural advantages among the intellectuals, I don’t think one party
comes off better than the other. I think that Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy
were the most successful presidents with intellectuals of the last 40 years,
but I think part of the reason for that is that they were willing to use the
intellectuals when it suited them, and ignore them when it was convenient as
well. Among Republicans , Ronald Reagan probably set the gold standard. Nixon
was fascinated by intellectuals but just had terrible relations with them.

Lopez: Who are your
favorite White House intellectuals?

Troy: Martin Anderson,
who served as Ronald Reagan’s “one man think tank,” set up the model
for conservatives to get involved in an administration. He collected lists of
intellectuals who backed the Reagan campaigns in 1976 and 1980, and helped get
many of them jobs in the Reagan administration. He also had no love for working
in the government and returned to Hoover Institution and wrote a great book
about his experiences. Plus, he’s a great guy who
blurbed my book

Lopez: Any funny
intellectual stories?

Troy: Richard Nixon
selected Daniel Patrick Moynihan as his ambassador to the intellectuals. Moynihan
was a Democrat who served in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations,
making him the David Gergen of the 1960s.

Nixon chose Moynihan largely
because of the dearth of conservative intellectuals who could fill such a position.
In addition, Moynihan was disliked by most liberals for his critique of liberal
excesses in the 1960s.

Moynihan felt strongly
that old-line Democrats had no home in elite institutions increasingly populated
by radicals. For example, Moynihan told Nixon that New York Times editor
Abe Rosenthal oversaw “[a news room] still predominantly made up of old
time liberal Democrats who can be counted on to report a story in a straight-forward
manner.” Unfortunately, Moynihan reported, “every time one of [the
veterans] goes and is replaced by a new recruit from the Harvard Crimson or
whatever, the Maoist faction on West 43d Street gets one more vote. No one else

Lopez: How’s this
administration doing with the intellectuals?

Troy: In my book,
I assess each administration in retrospect, often looking at internal documents
or memoirs that are not available until after the administration, so I guess
we’ll have to wait and see before making any judgments.

Lopez: Having gotten
to know so many of these intellectual/president relationships, have you any
advice for presidents?

Troy: Yes. Actually,
I’ve put together a “dos and don’ts” list.


ignore intellectuals, as it can come back to haunt you.

be an intellectual — the American people might like their politicians to
consult intellectuals, but they won’t vote for eggheads.

use an intellectual without a reputation as an intellectual — It’s like
sending a man to be the White House representative on women’s issues.

forget your friends. If you rely heavily on an academic adviser in the campaign,
make sure they’re taken care of in the administration. Carter and Clinton made
this mistake to some degree; Clinton got away with it, Carter did not.

make meetings of intellectuals public or reveal what was said in such meetings
in any official way.

underestimate the capacity for flattery among intellectuals.

try to latch on to a cutting edge concept developed by a prominent intellectual
work, especially if the concept is alarmist or disconcerting, a la malaise.

feel obligated to provide your aides with the same loyalty you demand from them.

confuse intellectual advisers with policy advisers, and vice versa.


use intellectuals to express your vision. Having a group of thinkers affiliated
with an idea — New Democrats, Compassionate Conservatism, even Supply-siders,
is far more preferable to flailing about searching for the “vision thing.”

use the president’s meal times liberally as a way to garner intellectual support.
Even if you don’t back their policies, few people refuse a free meal at the
White House.

call intellectuals and tell them you have read their works.

work with prominent think tanks and seek their guidance on issues in the campaign,
their personnel during transition. Do not publicly rely on think tank guidance
as president.

leak the existence of meetings with intellectuals, including the guest lists,
and any amusing anecdotes that reflect favorably upon one or more of the attendees.

let it be known when the president is reading a popular work by a well-known
scholar, so long as it is not a Swedish planning text, a la Michael Dukakis.

make sure that any intellectuals brought into the White House are loyal to the
president above all else. Loyalty is the most important characteristic for an
intellectual in the White House.

expect that any public intellectual in the White House will produce a book describing
their experiences. Do your best to ensure that this is a positive book, as it
will help shape your legacy. As Forrest McDonald wrote: “By and large,
works by former White House aides are good sources of information on the subject.
Presidents, in their memoirs, are less helpful.”

seek out advice from intellectuals, but do not rely on that advice