March 18, 2010


Bush, Obama, and the Intellectuals (TEVI TROY, Spring 2010, National Affairs)

On paper, George W. Bush (Andover '64, Yale '68, Harvard M.B.A. '75) might have held some appeal for American intellectuals. He certainly had more formal education, and at more highly regarded schools, than most American presidents. In practice, however, Bush was the epitome of everything the culturally liberal intellectuals despised. He was much more a Texas businessman — an oil man, no less — than a northeastern Ivy Leaguer. Both his personal instincts and his political ambitions led Bush to present himself as more redneck than blueblood: After he lost his first election — a 1978 congressional race, and the only election he ever lost — Bush vowed, as he would later put it, "never to get out-countried again."

But his determination not to get "out-countried" did not mean that Bush was uninterested in engaging scholars and wonks. In an interview with Time magazine's Walter Isaacson at the 2000 Republican Convention, Bush said, "My job is to get good thinkers and get the best out of them." His approach to the campaign suggested this was more than mere rhetoric: In 1998, while contemplating a run for the White House, Bush met with Hoover Institution scholars over dinner at former Secretary of State George Shultz's home. The encounter impressed Martin Anderson, who had collected intellectual support for Nixon and later Reagan. According to Anderson, the scholars "all kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, this guy's really good.' " From then on, Anderson and his colleagues helped Bush gain the support of conservative think-tank scholars and writers, which proved critical to his success in the 2000 Republican primaries.

But even as he pursued the usual Republican path of drawing on the conservative intellectual community that had developed as an alternative to the increasingly liberal world of the academy, Bush also cultivated an alternative to the alternative. He assembled a group of religiously inclined and culturally conservative writers and scholars who embodied what had come to be known as "compassionate conservatism" — a set of ideas that Bush put at the center of his 2000 campaign agenda. These thinkers argued that, to win elections, the right would need to do much more than offer a vision of a smaller federal government. Conservatives, they said, should speak to the concerns of the poorest and weakest, and take up the mantle of humanitarianism through conservative means. They called for conservative-minded approaches to dealing with poverty, education reform, and assisting the children of prisoners, among other causes — approaches that would take culture and not just economics seriously, and that would seek solutions beyond welfare checks. The core of their vision was fostering greater cooperation between government and local grassroots groups — including and especially religious groups, previously denied access to most federal support — in providing social services. Their ranks included Manhattan Institute scholar Myron Magnet, former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith, University of Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky, and the University of Pennsylvania's John DiIulio, as well as Michael Gerson — a congressional aide whom Bush hired as his chief speechwriter, and who imbued Bush's rhetoric with compassionate-conservative themes.

Bush brought only two of these prominent compassionate-conservative thinkers into the White House — Gerson, who was his chief speechwriter during his first term and an important policy advisor during both terms, and DiIulio, who briefly headed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives during Bush's first year in office. But Bush drew on the ideas that had emerged from the circle of compassionate-conservative thinkers throughout his eight years in the White House (something I observed first-hand, as a Bush domestic-policy advisor and deputy secretary of Health and Human Services).

Bush relied heavily on that close circle of thinkers, but he also went out of his way to forge links with the broader intellectual world. His approach reflected his M.B.A. training: He employed a more corporate model than previous presidents had, and explicitly assigned the role of intellectual outreach to one unit within the White House. Bush created an Office of Strategic Initiatives, to be headed by a deputy assistant to the president who would report to senior advisor Karl Rove. For most of Bush's eight years in office, OSI was headed by Peter Wehner, a conservative writer and long-time protégé of former education secretary and drug czar William Bennett.

Wehner did not come to the White House with a defined intellectual persona or an outsized national reputation, as Moynihan or Schlesinger had. But he was known and respected among the conservative intellectual set, and proved well suited to act as a bridge between the administration and the world of ideas. Wehner saw his task as two-fold: to keep the president informed about developments in the intellectual world that might have implications for his decision-making, and to communicate the administration's views and policy goals to intellectual elites in Washington and around the country. Wehner soon began the practice of sending mass e-mail messages to a large list of opinion leaders and scholars, making the president's case at a level of detail that went far beyond the typical government document. He would often answer critics at length, or direct his readers' attention to important new essays or articles. Unlike press releases or official communiqués, these messages did not go through the cumbersome White House clearance process; they were relatively informal, and therefore gave readers some fresh, genuine insight into the administration's thinking.

Wehner was also responsible for keeping the president and his senior staff informed of debates about administration policy in the world of serious opinion writing. As White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten described the job to the Washington Post in 2007: "Pete has the luxury of not having a specific line [of] responsibility so he can step back and read all of the informed commentary, digest it and draw the right conclusions from it." Wehner's other activities included, as the Post put it, "organiz[ing] meetings for the president with historians and scholars, host[ing] a lecture series and put[ting] together luncheon discussions for White House staff members to talk about the Federalist Papers, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. or Alexis de Tocqueville."

While his charge was not limited to the right, Wehner did work mainly with the conservative intellectual world, and made little headway in countering the larger liberal intelligentsia's intense hatred toward Bush. He brought left-leaning historians and other liberal scholars (including David Hackett Fischer and David Kennedy) to meet with the president on occasion, and made an effort to engage Bush's more thoughtful critics directly. But the general view among the smart set — that Bush was an untutored Texas cowboy — seemed only to worsen over time.

Bush himself contributed to that perception, of course. Part of his appeal to voters in both 2000 and 2004 was his regular-guy image, and his campaigns openly mocked the more urbane (if not effete) mannerisms of both Al Gore and John Kerry. This grated on many liberal intellectuals, who saw it as a kind of demagoguery. As Damon Linker of the New Republic put it in November 2009:

Everything about Bush — from his economically libertarian and socially conservative policies to his swaggering gait, mannered Southern drawl, and studied inarticulateness — was intended to convey the message that he was "one of us," an average American bringing his hard-won common sense to bear on the most challenging problems of our time, many if not all of which could be traced to the influence of the godless liberal elites who "really" run the country from their decadent enclaves in New York and Hollywood.

Bush may have successfully used his regular-guy appeal to win the presidency, but it could not have been a surprise — indeed, it must surely have been, in part, his intention — that this approach would draw the ire of liberal intellectuals. Linker's diatribe, and the broadly shared attitude it described, indicated the shrill partisanship of many on the intellectual left. But these objections were also reactions to cultural provocations. They represented a flare-up of the longstanding hostility between elitists and populists in American culture — a hostility that appears undiminished, even in the post-Bush era.

Apart from his fraught interactions with the left, Bush's relationship with the right-leaning intelligentsia was also far from smooth. His compassionate-conservative agenda, for all its intellectual credentials, was not the preferred, limited-government approach of most conservative scholars and writers. And his efforts at outreach notwithstanding, Bush's policies — particularly those involving domestic spending — alienated important elements of the conservative intellectual world.

As an institutional matter, Bush's outreach to intellectuals could well serve as a model for future presidents (especially Republicans). The establishment of an office specifically tasked with such outreach, and given a formal place in the White House organizational structure, helped Bush avoid some of the difficulties previous administrations had faced with their court intellectuals — such as ill-defined responsibilities, or the lack of a clear channel for getting ideas to the president. But as a matter of substance and outcomes, Bush's experience highlights the limits of intellectual outreach. Like other Republican presidents, he confronted a relentlessly hostile liberal intelligentsia; but unlike some Republican presidents, he sometimes chose sides within the conservative world — and so often divided, rather than strengthening and unifying, the right's alternative intellectual infrastructure.

Bush did, however, continue the pattern by which Republican presidents actually use intellectuals and allow them to help define presidential agendas, while the Democrats often treat intellectuals as cultural ornaments. The first year of Barack Obama's term suggests that he, too, will extend this pattern — and so also suggests that he could face real dangers in his relationship with the liberal intellectual elite.

Barack Obama's reception by academics and intellectuals could hardly have differed more from Bush's. Of course, Obama certainly has the formal credentials to be embraced by the smart set: He is a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, was editor of the law review at Harvard and a law professor at the University of Chicago, and authored a thoughtful (if youthful) memoir.

More important, however, is the fact that Obama shares the cultural predilections of many liberal intellectuals. The insight he offered up at a 2008 campaign fundraiser in San Francisco — that Pennsylvanians and Midwesterners "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations" — inadvertently revealed a mind very much at home on the left flank of the culture wars. Other occasions have also highlighted Obama's comfort among the intellectuals: Last year, when Harvard's Henry Louis Gates, Jr. — perhaps the nation's best-known African-American professor — was involved in a bizarre confrontation with the Cambridge Police Department, Obama strangely weighed in by publicly criticizing the cops and proclaiming that "Skip Gates is a friend." It was the sort of response one might expect at a faculty meeting — but not from the president of a law-and-order nation that reveres its first responders.

Obama's style and approach to decision-making in office have also won him kudos from intellectual observers who appreciate "his deliberateness, his empiricism, and his suspicion of easy answers," as Paul Glastris wrote in Washington Monthly late in 2008. This easy praise from academics and the literati — praise that often seems to be driven as much by distaste for George W. Bush as admiration for his successor — has largely spared Obama the task of cultivating relationships with the intellectuals. While there is no shortage of Ph.D.s in his administration — most prominently among Peter Orszag's staff at the Office of Management and Budget — Obama has no liaison to the intellectual world, formal or informal. He has closed down the Office of Strategic Initiatives, and has so far avoided explicit outreach to the academic world (aside from occasional meetings with historians — a longstanding White House tradition). When recently asked by a reporter about his reading habits, Obama replied: "I don't get a chance to read things other than briefing books very often these days." It is almost impossible to imagine that any of his recent predecessors would have given such an answer (or gotten away with it if he had); all made a point of showing off their reading lists to highlight their intellectual seriousness.

Curiously, Obama's most famous meeting with public intellectuals actually involved conservatives. [...]

Obama, of course, begins from a position of much greater strength in his relationship with liberal academics and writers. But as George W. Bush learned from some conservative intellectuals, disappointed former supporters can be at least as dangerous as outright political enemies. President Obama would be foolish to assume that he can count on the support of liberal intellectuals regardless of his actions in the coming years (especially when it comes to his foreign-policy decisions, which have already stoked liberal discontent). Nor should he underestimate the damage he would suffer if the cultural and academic elites who have backed him so far suddenly turned their knives against him. Precisely because Obama's presidency rests, in part, on his status as a cultural phenomenon, he would pay a heavy price for losing their support.

...but it is fatal for a national politician to be identified too closely with intellectualism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 18, 2010 5:39 AM
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