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Over-Rated Thinkers

Welcome to TNR’s 2011 list issue. Yesterday we named the most powerful, least famous people in Washington. Today’s installment: DC’s most over-rated thinkers.

Maybe it’s the Ph.D., his extensive bibliography, or his constant appearances on Fox News, but Newt Gingrich has held on to his reputation as the “ideas man” of the Republican Party for too long. Last May, when Gingrich was contemplating a run in 2012, Eric Cantor swooned over his intellect and The Washington Post published a story headlined: “Newt Gingrich has Ideas. Can He Turn Them into Presidential Appeal?” In Time magazine, Mark Halperin extolled his “blistering brainpower.” It’s certainly not evident to us. Gingrich has one of the loosest, least rigorous, most pretentious minds in politics. He loves ideas, he’s just no good at them; and the idea of ideas is not enough to make a man a serious intellectual. The bloopers in his works of history—fiction and nonfiction, and nonfiction that turns out to be fiction—are legendary.

Parag Khanna’s online bio is the Platonic ideal of puffed-up nonsense. Khanna is described as a “leading geo-strategist,” “an accomplished adventurer,” and “an active and advanced tennis player.” We further learn that he speaks five foreign languages, has traveled in more than 100 countries, and “has climbed numerous 20,000-foot plus peaks.” What’s more, he’s “a frequent speaker at international conferences” who briefs “corporations on global trends, systemic risks and emerging market strategies.” He has hosted an MTV show, was the first video blogger at, and directs something called the “Hybrid Reality Institute.” His recent book is actually called How to Run the World. It is a self-congratulatory anthology of clichés and platitudes—the life of the mind, Davos-style.

When this husband-and-wife foreign policy team left George W. Bush’s National Security Council in 2003, ostensibly over differences regarding the war on terrorism, it was predictable that liberals would leap at any expression of their discontent. When, in 2006, they sought to publish a New York Times op-ed on Bush’s supposed unwillingness to meet and negotiate with Iranian officials, and the White House insisted on censoring it, the Times published the heavily edited version anyway. An Esquire profile subsequently cast them as rebellious heroes. But, in the aftermath of the troubling Iranian elections in 2009, the Leveretts practically turned into champions for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, becoming prominent voices arguing for his legitimacy. “I think he’s actually a quite intelligent man,” Flynt told TNR in 2010. “I think he also has really extraordinary political skills.” Apologetics is not analysis. They should be ashamed.


MSNBC host Rachel Maddow gets a lot of credit for her quirky intellect. A fawning New York magazine profile began with a lengthy vignette about her on-air musings on Dadaism, as well as her impressive resumé—she’s a Rhodes scholar and an Oxford Ph.D., in case you didn’t know. But Maddow is a textbook example of the intellectual limitations of a perfectly settled perspective. She knows the answers even before she has the questions. The truth about everything is completely obvious to her. She seems utterly incapable of doubt or complication. Her show is a great tribute to Fox, because it copies the Fox style exactly.

Ayn Rand has earned her presence on this list by the astonishing persistence of her theories, which seem to have attained particular volume as of late, receiving endorsement from everyone from American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks to Representative Paul Ryan (who supposedly requires his staffers to read Atlas Shrugged) to Wall Street Journal economics writer Stephen Moore (“‘Atlas Shrugged’: From Fiction to Fact in 52 Years,” he wrote). Despite the fact that Rand’s worldview is a crackpot Manicheanism, in which the world is divided between virtuous, productive individuals and lazy parasites, Rand’s hold on American conservatism continues to grow, as if real thinking is ever compatible with a cult.

As former New York Times columnist Frank Rich’s average word count has increased, his writing has steadily become more predictable. From breathless diatribes on the Tea Party (over the course of two years, nearly 40 of his weekly columns touched on the unsavory patriots) to his fascination with the president’s placid demeanor, Rich writes cultural and political criticism with yesterday’s CNN headlines as his starting point. Rich, now a writer for New York magazine, has never been a brilliant political thinker; he is, in fact, an utterly conventional pundit of the old salon liberal variety. In his radical stance, he reminds us of Paul Krugman, except that Krugman is a scholar whose authority about his subject (economics, not politics) is unimpeachable, whereas Rich only knows what he’s learned from the media this past week. He is a clicker-intellectual.

Representative Paul Ryan is Washington’s idea of A Very Serious Person—an earnest individual with a systematic plan. It doesn’t have to be a good plan, but, if it has enough charts and numbers, and is accompanied by some patronizing finger-wagging, it’s golden. Ryan is in fact a slightly creepy Ayn Rand enthusiast (see above) seeking to impose a radical right-wing agenda on the country, but his doeish eyes and his Midwestern vintage convinced a rapt press corps that he is the ideas man in this age of budgetary woe. There is probably no public perception more deserving of a major revision.

There is a serious question whether Stephen Walt’s most popular work, The Israel Lobby (co-authored with John Mearsheimer in 2007), relies on tropes with a decidedly dark and conspiratorial provenance. But more to the point is that the book is unpersuasive and simplistic. Did you know that AIPAC and other pro-Israel outfits—not the Bush administration’s ideology or incompetence or mendacity, not bad intelligence, not post-9/11 hysteria, not anything else—were the “principal driving force” for the war in Iraq? If not, then you too are hopelessly captive to the Israel lobby. The controversy about Walt’s views appears to have embittered him even more, and the virulence with which he now writes as a pundit is extraordinary even in these virulent times. But it is certainly good for business.

President Obama’s indifference to narrative and the failure of his rhetoric was the theme of a long and much-discussed essay in The New York Times by Drew Westen in August. Unfortunately, Westen bungled a number of important facts, ignored others, elided crucial parts of history, and displayed a generally poor knowledge of how power is distributed and exercised in national politics. Westen is a professor of psychology, which lends an air of academic authority to his political punditry. He appears to be giving a deeper, more inward analysis, when in fact his knowledge of politics is amateurish. But at least he tells an enticing story, and that, apparently, is what it’s all about.

Fareed Zakaria is enormously important to an understanding of many things, because he provides a one-stop example of conventional thinking about them all. He is a barometer in a good suit, a creature of establishment consensus, an exemplary spokesman for the always-evolving middle. He was for the Iraq war when almost everybody was for it, criticized it when almost everybody criticized it, and now is an active member of the ubiquitous “declining American power” chorus. When Obama wanted to trust the Iranians, Zakaria agreed (“They May Not Want the Bomb,” was a story he did for Newsweek); and, when Obama learned different, Zakaria thought differently. There’s something suspicious about a thinker always so perfectly in tune with the moment. Most of Zakaria’s appeal is owed to the A-list aura that he likes to give off—“At the influential TED conference ...” began a recent piece in The New York Times. On his CNN show, he ingratiates himself to his high-powered guests. This mix of elitism and banality is unattractive. And so is this: “My friends all say I’m going to be Secretary of State,” Zakaria told New York magazine in 2003. “But I don’t see how that would be much different from the job I have now.” Zakaria later denied making those remarks.