Campaigns/Elections

Soundbite: POTUS and the Brain

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Tevi Troy, author of Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters, or Technicians? (Rowman & Littlefield), has some advice for presidents: Don't be an intellectual yourself, but don't ignore intellectuals. And don't underestimate an intellectual's capacity for flattery. "Intellectuals matter," he says. "Presidents can thrive by recognizing that or stumble if they don't."

Troy is a man of ideas himself, armed with a Ph.D. in American civilization from the University of Texas and think tank bona fides from stints at the Hudson and American Enterprise institutes. He has been published in outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, and reason. His new, meticulously researched history scopes out the role eggheads have played at the White House since 1960—or, perhaps more accurately, scopes out how the White House has played eggheads.

Troy likely knows something about that too. He's President George W. Bush's newly minted special adviser to the White House Domestic Policy Council. Previously, he served at the Department of Labor. While happy to discuss past administrations' experiences with intellectuals, Troy is keeping mum about his current boss's interaction with the smart set. Assistant Editor Sara Rimensnyder spoke with Troy in June.

Q: How do American presidents use intellectuals?

A: They use intellectuals to improve their image with media, with voters, and with the history books. Ideas from intellectuals are picked up by presidents and in campaigns. The question that inspired me to write the book was, How do ideas make it to the people in power?

Q: What are some examples of how intellectuals have made an impact on policy?

A: Supposedly the War on Poverty was inspired by Michael Harrington's book The Other America, after a New Yorker review made it to John F. Kennedy's desk. Another example would be Martin Anderson, Ronald Reagan's most prominent intellectual. He synthesized ideas about communism, taxation, and regulation, articulating them into a single vision that worked very well for Reagan.

Q: Which presidents have used intellectuals most and least effectively?

A: John F. Kennedy was the most successful; he established the model. He developed an intellectual mystique by affiliating with the historian Arthur Schlesinger and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Among other benefits, those relationships helped him win the support of the liberal elite.

Right after Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson tried to do a similar trick with Eric Goldman, a Prince-ton history professor. That failed miserably, so Johnson may have been the least successful. He never knew whether Goldman was on his side or the side of the intellectuals. And Goldman didn't know either.

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