Ben Alpers of Oklahoma University put up a quite interesting blogpost this week tracing the roughly fifteen-year heyday of the “White House intellectual.”
President Kennedy began the tradition by bringing in acclaimed historian (and walking definition of savoir-faire) Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to chronicle the mighty doings to come. (In this respect, there was a parallel between Schlesinger’s function and that of Theodore Roosevelt’s biographer Edmund Morris when he was given access to President Reagan throughout the 1980s for his authorized biography (which proved a bizarre disappointment in most quarters when it finally appeared in 1999).
Schlesinger was there for all of the Thousand Days, and made that the title of his Pulitzer-winning account of the Kennedy Administration later. When Lyndon Johnson came to the Oval Office after the terrible day in Dallas, Schlesinger wanted to leave, but Johnson persuaded him to stay for a while.
But the historian left in January 1964 and LBJ replaced him with Eric Goldman, the author of Rendezvous With Destiny. After two years of increasing disillusionment with Johnson, Goldman left to write the remarkable study The Tragedy Of Lyndon Johnson. Goldman was replaced by another historian, John P. Roche, who had worked as a Capitol Hill speechwriter and thus had better firsthand knowledge of the nitty-gritty of politics than his predecessor. He left in 1968 to write a newspaper column.
When President Nixon came in, the nebulous “White House intellectual” post went unfilled for a time. Ralph De Toledano, RN’s first biographer and a mainstay of conservative journalism, hoped to occupy it, but was not called on to do so.
But gradually, through 1969, Daniel P. Moynihan, who had been associated with the group around Commentary (still a liberal journal in those days) and who had worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, gradually assumed such a role in the Nixon White House, regularly discussing books with the President and helping to keep him abreast of what academics thought of his policies. (This was also done by Dr. Henry Kissinger whenever there was time to spare from the making of foreign and national-security policy.)
It should be emphasized, however, that Moynihan had a much greater hands-on role in the development of policy in the White House, especially where domestic affairs were concerned, than was the case with Schlesinger, Goldman or Roche.
In 1971 Moynihan left the Administration. By that time foreign affairs were almost completely dominating Kissinger’s time. And so the informal position of in-house intellectual was dormant for a time, except to the degree that Pat Buchanan, TNN’s own Frank Gannon, Ray Price, and (up to 1973) William Safire could fill it in the course of their work.
When Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon in 1974, his chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld urged him to revive the position, and so Robert Goldwin, the former dean of St. John’s College in Annapolis, came to the White House. Among other things he organized meetings between leading thinkers, social scientists, and educators with White House staffers and, occasionally, with the President. After future Vice President Dick Cheney replaced Rumsfeld as chief of staff, he continued to work closely with Goldwin.
(The enthusiasm of Rumsfeld and Cheney for maintaining the White House’s ties to the intellectual community is somewhat ironic, since, a quarter-century later, both men would have easily topped the list of those most hated by much of the liberal intelligentsia and in academia, which is now probably more left-leaning than it has ever been.)
When Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, no real effort was made to continue Goldwin’s work. With the Reagan presidency came Edmund Morris, but, as noted, his job was to be a biographer, not to comment on or influence policy. George H.W. Bush had few dyed-in-the-wool intellectuals on his staff (Christopher Buckley, in Bush’s vice-presidential years, probably came closest) and Clinton more or less functioned as his own in-house intellectual; Sidney Blumenthal would have been the closest thing to one in that Administration, but functioned more as a cheerleader and spinmeister a la Joe Conason than as a careful observer.
It appears likely that President Obama, like Clinton, will be his own White House intellectual, at least in the opening stages of his Administration. Thomas Frank, as one commenter at Alpers’s post notes, might have been a candidate, having long resided in Hyde Park not far from the then-state senator, but the controversy that ensued when Obama paraphrased Frank’s argument in the book What’s The Matter With Kansas? would have scotched that. Yesterday Forbes produced a list of America’s 25 top liberal intellectuals. Blogger Matt Yglesias, #16 on it, might just be the guy who’d be a good fit for this nebulous assignment at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.