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The Washington Intellectual

From the New Deal to the Reagan revolution.

NOT SO LONG ago, intellectuals seemed to be the most picked-on weaklings in the school yard of American politics. When George Wallace ran for president in 1972, he blamed "pointy-headed intellectuals" for everything from rising crime and changing sexual mores to busing and the stalemate in Vietnam. Vice President Spiro Agnew had exploited the same theme in 1970 when he attacked the country's "effete corps of impudent snobs," those "nattering nabobs of negativism" who opposed the Nixon administration. Two decades earlier the vocabulary was different but the mood was similar. In the fall of 1952 the epithet "egghead" was coined, apparently by columnist Stewart Alsop, and enjoyed wide circulation. Republicans gleefully used it to deride Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson and the writers and professors who supported him.

Today this rhetoric is anachronistic. Intellectualism is in political fashion, not least among conservatives. Back in 1968 Time magazine mocked anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy as a "sardonic intellectual." Most 1988 candidates would do cartwheels to win such a label from the newsweeklies. Even faith healer and would-be president Pat Robertson, in many respects the heir to Wallace’s constituency, boasts about having a degree from Yale Law School.

Candidates now work to project an intellectual image. Mario Cuomo is today's Adlai Stevenson, but he receives none of the abuse endured by his predecessor. His taste for bookish learning and his semi-scholastic writing are nothing but a political plus. Jack Kemp cultivates a reputation for "ideas." That once would have been suicide in the Republican Party. Now it is one of Kemp's selling points. Along with Gary Hart (the original "new ideas" man), Kemp and Bruce Babbitt are using personal "think tanks" as a way of launching their campaigns before formally announcing. And Jeane Kirkpatrick, whose only political asset is her reputation as steely-willed intellectual, is not a bad bet to land on the Republican ticket in 1988.

These developments symbolize the shift in the center of American intellectual life from New York to Washington. The very notion that Washington was or could be the intellectual capital of the United States would have been regarded as a joke as recently as ten years ago. The tempting crack that the "Washington intellectual" is a contradiction in terms, Reaganism's answer to "plastic glass" or "jumbo shrimp," has a rueful sound. When American politicians across the ideological spectrum aspire to be seen as intellectuals, it is safe to say that either political life or intellectual life has changed.

It's a little bit of both. Intellectualism is considered one of the many useful means of winning office, wielding power, and making the country a better place. This isn't unprecedented. A few New Dealers in the 1930s and the more liberal New Frontiersmen in the 1960s regarded themselves as intellectuals. But today political people throughout Washington—from Patrick Moynihan (senator from New York) to Michael Horowitz (David Stockman's former assistant) to Robert Novak (syndicated columnist) to Tom Joe (welfare reform advocate) to Barry Blechman (arms control strategist) to William Bennett (secretary of education)—regard themselves at some level as intellectuals. This is to say nothing of the squadrons of young conservatives who work in congressional offices or intern at some think tank and who speak with touching sincerity of their eagerness to join the "battle of ideas."

What's surprising and unprecedented about this trend is the number of conservatives who are shaping it. Not that conservatives haven't been or can't be intellectuals. But until very recently they have been skeptical about the pretensions of intellectuals in politics—and none more so than conservative intellectuals. Today that skepticism is gone, replaced by the boundless confidence of the liberal intellectual of 25 years ago. There is nothing more characteristic of the Washington intellectual than confidence.

THE WASHINGTON intellectual was not created in the last five years or even in the last 15. The rise of the Washington intellectual goes back at least 50 years, and is part of the rise of Washington. In the 1930s New York was the seat ofnational power, and intellectual life coalesced in Manhattan. Until the mid-1930s the deliberations of the New York Fed were more important than those of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington. The national media, centered in book publishing and the magazines, were headquartered in New York. With the rise of the electronic media and the movies, this industry dispersed. Publishing lost its dominance. The entertainment wing of the media went west to Hollywood. A national news media emerged, and focused on Washington.

The growth of the federal government during and after World War II exerted a gravitational force on intellectual disciplines like the law and economics. This drift goes on, regardless of ideological fashion. Today federalism and deregulation may be in vogue, but the job market in Washington for conservative legal scholars and free market economists has never been better. Within the federal government "policy shops" have sprung up devoted to research and speculation about ideas. Outside the government, the role of the United States in world politics since the war has created a vast and diverse research industry centered in Washington. The boom in op-ed pages, opinion sections, and news analysis articles in the last 15 years has raised the intellectual level of the national media and their Washington staffs.

There is now a thriving market for people who can speculate about ideas in institutions that didn’t exist at all 50 years ago. These jobs are often in what is called “policy studies,” a branch of academic life distinct from the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences. Policy studies is the halfway house between university life and Washington life. In their more academic forms, policy studies institutions, such as the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, provide training for intellectual work in the public sector.

In their more politicized forms, these institutions are often more closely integrated into Washington than into their own mother institutions. The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington is nominally connected with Georgetown University. Georgetown's campus is only a few miles from downtown Washington, but that apparently is too far from the action for CSIS. Its offices are located right down the street from the White House.

The traditional Washington think tanks are also changing. They have grown in number in recent years, especially on the right, and they also have shaken off the somnolent high-mindedness they once specialized in. The hot think tanks now are smaller organizations that combine research and publication with aggressive advocacy. On the left these new organizations directly descended from the protest movements of the late 1960s and the consumer movements of the early 1970s. They have evolved into permanent groups such as the Washington Office on Latin America, which opposes the administration's Central America policy, and the Center for Tax Justice, which has led the fight for tax reform.

The right has adopted this activist model over the last ten years. Its organizations and publications tend to be funded by conservative foundations. Indeed, one influential and unstudied organization, the Institute for Educational Affairs, does nothing but tell right-wing donors where to invest their intellectual dollars. Whether on the left, right, or center, these new organizations are staffed by people who once would have been graduate students or assistant professors—and hence more recognizable as intellectuals.

THE HISTORY OF the Washington intellectual is in part the history of a debate about the role of the intellectual in public life. One side has spoken for the ideal of intellectual independence, the other for the ideal of intellectual responsibility. In 1956 the intellectual historian H. Stuart Hughes joined this debate because he could see the Washington intellectual coming. In a prescient essay for Commentary called         "Is the Intellectual Obsolete?" Hughes stressed that freely speculating intellectuals had to be distinguished from "mental technicians." He defined the mental technician as the intellectual who produced "bright ideas for essentially practical purposes masking as intellectual activity." He lamented that the mental technicians were likely to prosper, financially and otherwise. "Eventually even the intangible factors of leisure and prestige may begin to favor the mental technician over the creative writer or scholar," he wrote.

The danger, Hughes stressed, was not political compromise. It was professional compromise. He spoke for the ideal of intellectual life that sees impracticality as the best guarantee of intellectual freedom. He didn't think that intellectual life was an exalted calling or that intellectuals were entrusted with great responsibilities. He simply believed that intellectuals should stick to what they do best, speculating about ideas, even if it wasn't in their immediate self-interest. Intellectuals lost their purpose when they strayed outside their own small unpractical sphere. By raising the question of obsolescence, Hughes perhaps sensed that his plea was already too late.

BY THE TIME Hughes wrote his article, the opposing ideal, of responsibility, had become common. As the Washington intellectual has gained prominence, this ideal has become a dominant view among American intellectuals. The New Deal intellectuals, often inspired by Harvard Law School professor Felix Frankfurter, had stressed that their duty was to influence and exercise power as their learning and judgment dictated. After the war, liberal intellectuals such as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. offered an even more ambitious formulation of this ideal. They denied Hughes's view that culture was best understood and shaped by stepping back from politics. Rather, they insisted that engagement in politics was a kind of cultural exploration in and of itself. They could engage in political action and, by doing so, act in the broader interests of culture.

In the first ideal of intellectual life, culture defined politics, and it was the intellectual's job to study culture. In the second ideal, politics defined culture, and it was the intellectual's job to engage in politics. The first was the ideal of the small group of former Marxist intellectuals in New York who wrote for the Partisan Review. They had originally thought they could champion Marxism in politics and modernism in culture. When the politics put humiliating strictures on the culture, they made the exploration of culture their ideal and subordinated politics to it. Ironically, as the Partisan Review intellectuals—the New York intellectuals—were gaining prominence in the late 1940s and early 1950s, their ideal of critical independence was losing sway. The confrontation with totalitarianism made political engagement the more attractive ideal.

The drift was clear by 1960. In Senator John F. Kennedy, Schlesinger and other liberal intellectuals found their vehicle for advancing their political goals. Schlesinger cleverly elevated the lack of ideology to a kind of ideology itself. He looked for Kennedy not only to promote political goals but to reinvigorate American life and culture. Less sophisticated observers could see that Kennedy was an ambitious, cautious, publicity conscious politician, and not an intellectual prince. Kennedy tolerated the intellectuals only to the extent that they provided "bright ideas for essentially practical purposes." But the alliance between Kennedy and his intellectual admirers was mutually beneficial. The president got his mental technicians. The intellectuals got their proximity to power. As historian Christopher Lasch noted in his book The New Radicalism in America, "The con- fusion, in the mind of the intellectuals, between intellect itself and the interests of the intellectuals as a class had become almost complete, though the two things, in truth, had never been more hopelessly at odds."

This newly ascendant intellectual class, of course, was predominantly liberal and had been ever since the New Deal. Thus it was in the self-interest of liberals as well as of intellectuals to celebrate the importance of intellectuals. When Barry Goldwater won the 1964 Republican presidential nomination as a challenger to the pretensions of the New Frontiersmen, the liberal intellectuals were filled with foreboding. In a Partisan Review symposium on Goldwater in 1964, the only person who could muster a good word for the Republican presidential nominee was critic Richard Poirier. He noted that, if nothing else, Coldwater's sup- porters harbored "a desire to make American politics something more than a form of management."

The remark was a sign that the debate about the role of the intellectual in public life had changed. Hughes's contrast between the freely speculating intellectual and the mental technician had been reduced to a debate about the mental technician. Should he or she be a manager, solving society's problems at home and abroad? Or should the intellectual in politics aspire for more, for shaping the broader culture? Should the intellectual's goal be expertise or ideology? The choice wasn't as sharp as it might seem. Either way the intellectual occupied a crucial role in politics. Politically, though, this split would divide the mostly liberal Washington intellectuals for years to come.

IT WAS BEST symbolized by the founding of the Public Interest magazine in 1965 by sociologists Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol, liberals who were disturbed by the ideological drift of the times. Their magazine of the social sciences was the offspring of the Partisan Review, except it was not directed at New York intellectuals. Although based in New York, the Public Interest was perhaps the first magazine intended solely for Washington intellectuals. It aimed solely to help Washington intellectuals solve problems they confronted while working in government. In their inaugural issue Bell and Kristol denounced ideology and the impulse to make politics something more than management. They were afraid of the Goldwater movement, but they were more worried about the growth of the New Left.

They saw that the ideology of non-ideology was losing its attractiveness. Liberal intellectuals, even liberal Washington intellectuals, were dissatisfied with being mental technicians and were disturbed by the war in Vietnam. Those who took seriously the New Frontier rhetoric of reviving American culture and life were increasingly attracted by the left. But joining the left meant distancing oneself from Washington. Bell and Kristol's ideal of intellectual service to the public interest remained compelling, but it now required narrower ambitions and a willingness to reconcile oneself to the war at the very moment that President Johnson began the B-52 bombing of North Vietnam. The tension between maintaining even the illusion of critical independence and influencing power had never been higher.

In any case, it was clear by the mid 1960s that Hughes's ideal of the "freely speculating mind" had lost out. Irving Howe described exactly how in his obituary for "The New York Intellectuals," written in 1967. What had motivated the New York intellectual, Howe wrote, "was not... the quest for money, nor even a chance to 'mix' with White House residents; it was finally... a gnawing ambition to write something, even three pages, that might live." Howe noted that, unlike the Washington intellectual, few of them "approached any centers of power, and precisely the buzz of gossip attending the one or two sometimes invited to a party beyond the well-surveyed limits of the West Side showed how confined their life still was."

Howe explained, as Hughes had, that it was too simplistic to say that the allure of power would cause intellectuals to sell out to conservatism (although that did happen in some cases). Howe was just as critical of the New Left intellectuals who, after a promising start, reverted to all the old habits they had hoped to break. He lamented that, just like the liberal and conservative intellectuals who had not opposed McCarthy, the radical intellectuals who would not oppose the new Stalinism had surrendered their critical independence in their pursuit of political influence and power. Everywhere Howe looked (including the mirror) he saw intellectuals who viewed engagement in the political world as the highest calling in intellectual life.

THE LOW EBB of the Washington intellectual in the early 1970s was deceptive. Yes, Agnew and Wallace embodied a larger backlash against McGovern (whom most intellectuals supported). Yes, the New Left intellectuals had self-destructed with the descent of SDS into the terrorist Weather Underground. Yes, the Vietnam War and the failures of the Great Society discredited the Kennedy and Johnson intellectuals. But the notion that politics defined culture, and that it was therefore the intellectual's job to engage in politics, not only survived—it flourished.

It flourished most in the two places where it was least expected: on the right, and among the Public Interest intellectuals who had prided themselves on being mental technicians. Everyone else was in disarray. The intellectual left was retreating from the barricades to the library. Liberal intellectuals increasingly found themselves in cultural debates over abortion, over feminism, over school prayer. Their superficial conception of cultural renewal as a byproduct of electoral politics gave them no way to understand the political implications of these issues except in the crude terms of "liberation" versus "repression."

The conservative resurgency, with its roots in the Wallace and Goldwater movements, increasingly took on a self-consciously intellectual stance. Wallace might scorn the pointy heads in Washington, but in 1973 a Wallace sympathizer, Paul Weyrich, convinced brewer Joe Coors to fund an institution for pointy heads in Washington. Thus the most powerful institution of the New Right, the Heritage Foundation, was born.

As this movement grew, it had a latent appeal that was easy to overlook. It reserved a central role for intellectuals, especially Washington intellectuals. Although fervently populist, it saw the need for an elite movement to do battle with the ideology of the liberal establishment. This was not incompatible with the view of disillusioned liberals such as Kristol who had spoken for the social science elite against the ideological mob. A shared distaste for liberal intellectuals enabled the Wallace-Goldwater conservatives and the disillusioned liberals to become allies. The corporate community, waking up to the costs of safety and environmental regulation, was similarly inclined to take on the Washington intellectuals who articulated the case for regulation. The fundamentalist movement that emerged in the late 1970s had no intellectual pretensions, but they too demonized liberalism. Again there was a useful alliance. The fundamentalists were elevated above know-nothings. The crusade of the conservative intellectuals was invested with a moral and populist aura.

With the election of Ronald Reagan, the work of remaking the culture was divvied up. The fundamentalists took on the counterculture of the 1960s as it had been incorporated into the mainstream of American life. Neoconservatives took on the "culture of appeasement" that had allegedly enervated American foreign policy. The free market conservatives undertook to rehabilitate the culture of capitalism. And those with a social conscience were assigned the job of battling the "culture of poverty." Conservative intellectuals claim they are merely dismantling the old liberal paternalism. In practical terms, though, it is certain that the ranks of conservative intellectuals in Washington will grow indefinitely. If the conservative intellect denies the importance of Washington, the self-interest of the conservative intellectual celebrates it. The work of a Washington intellectual, liberal or conservative, is never done.

THE COMPLETE LOSS of skepticism about the pretensions of intellectuals marks a turning point for American conservatism. The logic of this transformation becomes clear in Kristol's indictment of the "The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals."

Writing in 1979, Kristol could no longer idealize non-ideological social science as the way to fine-tune the public interest. The public interest, he now argued, lay in the preservation of bourgeois society. Intellectuals, he said, are hostile to this world for two reasons. First, because it is based on self-interest, not on the more intellectually appealing but more insidious idea of "the common good." And second because the bourgeois order is mundane, based on commerce rather than on a vision of human perfection. The former is the basis for Marxism, the latter for modernism. The combination of the two is "the adversary culture" that endangers bourgeois society.

But as for finding defenders of the bourgeois order, Kristol was forced to fall back on enlisting—who else?—the intellectuals. The members of bourgeois society—devoted to commerce, to their own self-interest, to the private pursuit of happiness—could not be counted on to drop their virtuous activities to push dreams of "the common good." Their unwillingness to do so is at least in part their virtue. Somebody else—somebody willing to act in the public interest—has to do the job. Kristol thought "the Judeo-Christian tradition" could be useful in defeating the adversary culture, but he had little confidence in the churches. He concluded that the salvation of bourgeois society, if it were to come at all, would come from the "thoughts germinating in the mind of some young unknown philosopher or theologian." In short, from a new kind of intellectual who would act disinterestedly on behalf of all of bourgeois society.

Kristol has succumbed to the same illusions that he attributed to socialist intellectuals. In his essay, he had mocked intellectuals for their complacent assumption that they had transcended their own self-interest and could or would act on behalf of "the common good" in leading their political movement. He said, "As intellectuals, they are qualified candidates for membership in the elite that leads such a movement and they can thus give free expression to their natural impulse for authority and power. They can do so, moreover, within an ideological context, which reassures them that, any superficial evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, they are disinterestedly serving the 'true' interests of the people." This is exactly the faith of the conservative Washington intellectuals today.

Will conservative intellectuals entrust themselves (and a few fundamentalist preachers) with the semi-clerical role of restoring "the Judeo-Christian tradition"? Or will they acknowledge that their ambitions may reflect self-interest as much as anything else, and return to a more modest role of speculating about the self-destructive impulses of a bourgeois society?

It all depends on their conception of what an intellectual should do. Liberal and left intellectuals disturbed by the fundamentalist ambitions of conservative intellectuals would do well to recall how their own ambitions have contributed to the emergence of the Washington intellectual. They might go back to Hughes or Howe, or listen to the intellectuals of Central Europe, who, though unequivocally anti-communist, do not fit anywhere on our spectrum of political intellectuals. One of them, Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, offered this advice at the PEN conference in New York last January. He said, "We, powerful in our unpractical sphere of images and penetration, envy politicians their power. It is a mistake.... We have to be vigilant but we should not leave our field, our sphere.... We do not bear practical responsibility. We are bearing intellectual responsibility because we are trying to decipher the meaning of the world." 

This article originally ran in the August 11, 1986 issue of the magazine.