‘She’s an art historian, you know!” said Donald Rumsfeld to me, when I dropped by his office in 2009. He said it with a look of wonder and glee. He was talking about his director of research, Victoria Coates. She and others were helping the former defense secretary with his memoir, which would be titled “Known and Unknown.”
I indeed knew she was an art historian. In fact, I had been friends with Victoria for several years.
After working for Rumsfeld, she worked for Governor Rick Perry of Texas. Now she is working for another Texas politician, Senator Ted Cruz. She is his top foreign-policy aide. If he makes it to the White House, will she be national-security adviser? I wouldn’t bet against it.
She has just published a book, David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art. In addition to Michelangelo’s David, she discusses the Parthenon, Monet’s Water Lilies, Picasso’s Guernica, etc. “David’s Sling,” by the way, is also the name of an Israeli missile-defense system. The Jews are still coming up with ways to defend themselves against fearsome enemies, as Victoria points out.
This is an unusual moment in her life: Her boss, Cruz, is in the midst of a white-knuckle presidential campaign; and she has this new book to promote. So, she accompanies the candidate to one television studio, and then, hours later, goes to another to be interviewed herself. This is good for both Cruz and book sales.
The Marxists have an apt expression: “the correlation of forces.”
Chatting with her, I say, “I want to call you ‘Victoria’ in print, because it would be so awkward not to. ‘Coates’ would seem both odd and cold.” She will answer to “Mrs.,” “Professor,” and even “Dr.” (as in “Dr. Kissinger,” “Dr. Brzezinski,” “Dr. Rice” . . .). But she is happy with “Victoria,” which, after all, she notes, means “victory.”
She was born and raised in Lancaster, Pa. — “the middle of Pennsyltucky,” as she says, using a fond term for the vast stretch of Pennsylvania between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. “We cling to our guns and religion, bitterly.” With these words, of course, she is alluding to an infamous statement of Barack Obama, uttered when he was campaigning for president in 2008. He was talking about “small towns in Pennsylvania.”
Victoria’s paternal grandfather, Paul Gardner, was a virtual orphan who rose to make a fortune in business. Horatio Alger would blush. On her mother’s side, Victoria is descended from Andrew Gregg Curtin, who, during the Civil War, was governor of Pennsylvania.
Her father, Gene Gardner, started an investment firm in Lancaster. Her mother, Anne, is an executive in the firm. The Gardners are keen art collectors. When a student at Harvard, Mr. Gardner studied art history with Seymour Slive, an expert on Rembrandt and other Dutchmen. Victoria never met Professor Slive, “but he has played a profound role in my life,” she says: “He inspired my father to be interested in art history, and Dad then thought it was worthwhile for me to go into the field.”
When Victoria was six, in 1974, the family went on a trip to Europe. In Amsterdam, they marched straight to the Rijksmuseum, where they saw The Night Watch (Rembrandt). It was the first work of art that made an impact on Victoria. It is one of the ten works in David’s Sling.
For college, Victoria went to Trinity, in Hartford, Conn. She intended to major in political science, but “I was bitten by the art-history bug.” So, she switched. For her master’s degree, she went to Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass. She wrote about Pontormo and the influence on him by Dürer. For her doctorate, she went to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. She specialized in 16th- and 17th-century Italians and Frenchmen.
Her dissertation? It’s on Camillo Massimo, an Italian cardinal and diplomat who was also a major patron of the arts. Among his beneficiaries was Poussin.
With a smile, I tell Victoria, “I know Poussin chiefly through the Cold War.” It takes her about a second and a half to figure out what I mean: Anthony Blunt, the Cambridge spy, was the preeminent authority on Poussin. Victoria’s undergraduate adviser was himself advised by Blunt.
Asking a too-simple question, I say, “Would you care to name favorite artists?” It is not too simple for her. In any event, she is happy to answer: “Poussin. Cellini. Raphael. Those are the ones I would take to a desert island.”
While studying at Penn, Victoria married George Coates, who is a wine dealer. They have two children, a girl, Gardner, and a boy, Gowen. They live in Chestnut Hill, a neighborhood of Philadelphia. They also have a long-term lease on a place at Andalusia, the estate of Nicholas Biddle overlooking the Delaware River. Biddle was president of the Second Bank of the United States. George Washington had crossed the Delaware 20 miles north of the estate.
I might mention, too, that Victoria is a fanatic about Philadelphia sports teams — a Philly phanatic.
Politically, Victoria has always been a conservative. She never had a flirtation with the Left. Are there others in art history? Other Republicans or conservatives? Victoria knows one other. And she tells me something amusing about Mary Beard, the famous English classicist, who is far from a conservative (except in the sense that all classicists are conservative). Beard and Victoria are friends. And Beard will say to her, “Victoria, why aren’t more conservatives like you?” Victoria will respond, “Mary, I’m the only conservative you ever talk to!”
In the mid 2000s, Victoria was teaching at Penn. She was also blogging under the name “AcademicElephant” for RedState, the conservative website. Most of her posts had to do with foreign policy, national security, and war, though she also wrote about art history. Victoria may have been blogging anonymously, but she was a very bold person . . .
. . . to the point of wearing a hat that said “Rumsfeld Fan.” One day, she was jogging in a Philadelphia park while wearing this hat. Another jogger stopped her. “Does your hat say what I think it does?” he said. Naturally befuddled, Victoria said, “Well, yes.” He then spat at her.
In the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a couple of Rumsfeld aides were reading AcademicElephant at RedState. They included some of the blogger’s writings in the secretary’s daily folder. Before long, Rumsfeld and his people were wondering, “Who is this military guy who knows so much and thinks so well?”
Through a “weird series of accidents,” says Victoria, the military guy, who was actually a female art-history professor, wound up working for Rumsfeld, after he left office. At first, Victoria worked part-time. What did her academic colleagues think, by the way? Were they shocked? “They were surprised,” recalls Victoria. And one of them, who had been a close colleague, stopped speaking to her.
Eventually, part-time work became full-time, and Victoria ceased to teach art history. When the Rumsfeld project wrapped up, the 2012 presidential cycle was in gear. One of the candidates was Governor Perry — who recruited Victoria to advise him. At this point, yet another of Victoria’s close colleagues in academia stopped speaking to her.
The Perry presidential campaign did not work out — as it would not four years later — but, in early 2013, Victoria signed on with that second Texas politician, the new senator, Cruz. Public figures, like others, evidently value Victoria’s expertise, versatility, talent, efficiency, and notably pleasant manner.
Thinking about Rumsfeld, Perry, and Cruz, Victoria says, “I’m drawn to the shy, retiring type.” More seriously, she says, “What the three of them have in common is patriotism. They love America and feel compelled to defend it.”
When I ask about her favorite presidents, she starts with this: She has a dog named Calvin. Full name, Calvin Coolidge Coates. She goes on to cite Lincoln and Reagan. “But my absolute favorite is George Washington. Without him, it doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t.”
And how about her favorite world leaders, of recent vintage? Well, she has a second dog: Thatcher. Reflecting on the late prime minister, Victoria says that she showed how you can be a woman and play at the highest levels, affecting history. She then mentions Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore. And Benjamin Netanyahu, the current prime minister of Israel.
This prompts me to tell her about a public interview I did of Paul Johnson, the British historian, about ten years ago. He has known everyone, and, if not, has certainly thought about everyone. “Who are the truly impressive figures of our age?” I asked. He first said Lee Kuan Yew. Then he said, “I think Netanyahu is a man of destiny.” And that was it.
About Obama’s foreign policy, Victoria has much to say, obviously, but she leads with these two sentences: “It’s backwards. It is the opposite of what is productive.” Iran is a prime example, she says. And a Cruz foreign policy would be starkly different.
Some opponents of the senator, on the right, have tried to make an issue of Victoria. They’ve whispered to donors, “He’s advised on foreign policy by an art historian, you know.” For his part, Cruz is delighted to introduce her to donors — who conclude that she’s a feather in the candidate’s cap.
Whether he is elected president or not, his national-security aide, Victoria Coates, is likely to make a splash, whether in her foreign-affairs work or her art-historical work. She already has. And the waves, in all probability, will get bigger. And when I write about her from now on, she will not be “Victoria.” I’ve gotten used to “Cruz” (he’s also an old friend). I can get used to “Coates,” too.