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Intellectuals and the American Presidency
Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians?
By Tevi Troy
Rowman & Littlefield
280 pgs. $27.95
ISBN: 0-7425-0825-0

No president is an island

By Jackson Murphy
web posted June 10, 2002

Intellectuals and the American Presidency Tevi Troy's new book Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians? offers a readable and compelling account of the influence that intellectuals have upon presidents.

The intellectual is a funny construct. They are not simply smart people or eggheads. As Troy explains it, the intellectual is not merely someone who combines in work and play the art of thinking. The intellectual is those things as well as someone harboring the characteristic of being in dire need of appreciation of his efforts. So it is not surprising that in search of appreciation intellectuals took advantage in the growth of the media and more importantly the post WWII growth of government.

The rise of influential intellectuals in the White House followed corresponding changes in American life in the twentieth century. The audience for intellectuals grew as an, "educated, affluent, interested" New Class emerged out of economic growth and more finite policy such as the GI Bill which sent increasing numbers of people into universities.

By 1960, Troy writes, "American intellectuals stood at the height of their influence. They tended to live in New York or Boston, shared similar political views, largely associated with the Democratic Party, and for the most part supported America in its Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union." It was this constituency that John F. Kennedy desperately wanted to woo in his bid for the presidency. Kennedy recruited intellectuals to help on his campaign and hired academics in a variety of positions in the administration.

The first true intellectual in the White House was Arthur Schlesinger. "His first and primary role was as intellectual and historical advisor in the White House." He was a reassuring figure to the left and helped to keep the president aware of new ideas. More importantly, "his job at the White House paid him $20,000 to be . . . Arthur Schlesinger. For Kennedy, this was a bargain. Schlesinger, with his high standing among the relatively unified intellectual community, helped Kennedy become president, gain good reviews as president, and become even more important in the years following the tragic assassination in Dallas."

Troy navigates the presidencies and their intellectuals following in Kennedy's footsteps. He takes a historical trip through the White House from the perspective of the turf wars between intellectuals and their more powerful bosses. Lyndon Johnson is known as an anti-intellectual president and was never able to change that perception. Richard Nixon's relationship with intellectuals was shaped by his long time anticommunism so by the time he became president he sought his very own intellectual minion. He picked Daniel Patrick Moynihan which "helped move disaffected liberal intellectuals to the right and served as an important factor in the creation of a new conservative alternative."

What is clear is that a president without a clear set of ideas is doomed to failure. One-termers (Ford, Carter, Bush I) all appear to have ignored or misused intellectuals and paid a heavy price. Carter learned the price for lacking a "one-man lightening rod for ideas" and lacked the ability to truly sell his ideas. Bush didn't take what he called, "the vision thing" seriously enough and could not square his ideas with the public.

On the other hand, having an intellectual is not the sole key to a successful presidency. Ronald Reagan was successful simply because he didn't need an intellectual to show the public where it was that he stood on a given issue. "Reaganism was conservatism in the Reagan years, in a way that Carterism, Clintonism, or Johnsonism were never liberalism," writes Troy.

Clinton managed a yeoman relationship with intellectuals only to use them as his personal defenders during his times of personal crisis. Nevertheless intellectuals and successful courting of them can come in handy in a variety of situations.

The transformation of intellectuals in the White House over the course of the last forty years has seen them go from being general ambassadors to the intellectual community at large to the current use of intellectuals in key positions of policy. In an interesting side story, this may have something to do with the rise of the 'think tank' and the think tank intellectual.

Tevi Troy's Intellectuals and the American Presidency clearly articulates that presidents cannot operate in a vacuum in the White House, and that intellectuals can be useful in shaping and articulating ideas, reflecting criticism, shoring up support on the political base, or partisan hackery. No president is an island but intellectuals are no substitute for a president's personal political instinct.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He is the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

Buy Tevi Troy's Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians? at Amazon.com for only $19.57 (30 per cent off)

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