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Robert Goldwin, R.I.P.


Jonah has already noted the sad passing of AEI scholar Robert Goldwin, who served as the White House’s intellectual-in-residence during the Ford administration. After Irving Kristol passed last fall, I wrote about Goldwin’s important role in bringing Kristol into briefings with President Ford on a variety of topics. Goldwin so appreciated Kristol’s wisdom and versatility that he referred to Kristol as “the universal resource.” Goldwin’s good judgment on the matter of Kristol was hardly the only instance of his perspicacity. Goldwin also brought in other conservative scholars, including James Q. Wilson, Thomas Sowell, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Edward Banfield to meet with Ford, and he was a good source for bringing new conservative ideas to the White House mix. In addition to the president, Goldwin also served a receptive audience that included Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Chief of Staff Dick Cheney.

Rumsfeld, in fact, gave Goldwin his first political appointment. Nixon had appointed Rumsfeld as ambassador to NATO, and Rumsfeld hired Goldwin as an assistant. Later, after Nixon resigned, Rumsfeld brought Goldwin to the White House officially as a “special consultant,” although his unofficial titles in the media included “the president’s professor” and “Gerald Ford’s ideas broker.” Long-serving Ford speechwriter Robert Hartmann, who did not like Goldwin (or Rumsfeld and Cheney, all of whom he thought of as interlopers), sneeringly referred to Goldwin as “Rumsfeld/Cheney’s resident ‘intellectual.’”

Goldwin, for his part, did not even like the word intellectuals, describing them “as people who have a real distaste, sometimes even contempt, for the commonsense approach, which is fundamentally the political approach.” As a result, Goldwin felt that “’intellectuals’ don’t have much that is helpful to say to people who have to run the government.” For these reasons, Goldwin sought to bring Ford in contact with “commonsense” thinkers, rather than those of the best and the brightest school who had been dominant in the Kennedy and, to a lesser degree, Johnson administrations.

In addition to his skepticism of many intellectuals and his sharp eye for talent, another one of Goldwin’s strengths was his deft ability to handle entreaties from other conservative luminaries who wanted an audience with the president. At one point, Hudson Institute founder Herman Kahn wrote to Goldwin that he had heard “from Irving Kristol that you are in charge of moving intellectual ideas into the White House. I have lots of them. Should we get together?” To this, Goldwin wisely replied, “Of course we should get together,” which was the only possible correct response. In this, Goldwin managed not to offend Kahn, but he also did not commit the White House to anything, either.

When Claremont-McKenna professor Harry Jaffa — who was a West Coast Straussian, in contrast to Goldwin’s East Coast Straussianism — complained that Goldwin did not reply quickly enough to his letters, Goldwin had a ready reply: “You wrote to me in July 1973 that President Nixon should resign — and he did.  What better results can you expect from a single letter?” Goldwin’s response mollified the famously argumentative Jaffa, who wrote back that “had I known that you, armed with my letter, were busy persuading President Nixon to resign, I would not have allowed that complaining tone to creep into my letter.”

Goldwin was the first conservative to serve as intellectual liaison in a modern White House. As Jack Pitney described his role, “Goldwin was less a liaison to the general academic community than an ambassador to the rising conservative counter-establishment.” Richard Nixon had thought about cultivating the nascent conservative intellectual movement, but he had hired Pat Moynihan, a Democrat with neoconservative tendencies, to serve as his intellectual liaison. In Goldwin, Ford hired the real thing. Goldwin was a little-noted but crucial figure in the development of a mature conservative movement. The thinkers and ideas he brought in to the Ford White House were part of a growing conservative intellectual movement that received an extra shot of legitimacy and visibility by obtaining such high-level White House attention.

Even Goldwin’s departure from the White House served a role in advancing the status of conservative’s intellectual institutions. While his predecessors as White House intellectual liaisons, such as Arthur Schlesinger and Eric Goldman, later returned to the cozy confines of academia, Goldwin blazed what was at the time a new path, leaving the White House to join a think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Where he went, many successors later followed. He will be missed.


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