The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White Houseby Benjamin R. Barber
President Clinton had a romance with big ideas. He intently cultivated intellectuals, seducing them with his characteristic charm and with the promise of real influence on the political stage. Yet most often he disappointed the big thinkers whose advice he sought.
Benjamin Barber was
Ideas and the presidency flirt with each other, but can they really get along?
President Clinton had a romance with big ideas. He intently cultivated intellectuals, seducing them with his characteristic charm and with the promise of real influence on the political stage. Yet most often he disappointed the big thinkers whose advice he sought.
Benjamin Barber was first invited to Camp David in 1994, along with other prominent members of the academic community, to participate in a "seminar" with President Clinton on the future of Democratic ideas and ideals. Afterwards, he became a steady informal adviser to the White House. For a politically committed professor like Barber, the opportunity was exhilaratinghere was an opportunity to put ideas into action, to link ideas to power. The result was enlightening, if unexpected. The most unpredictable factor was the president himself: a man of astonishing intellectual gifts, a consummate listener and synthesizer of ideas, who nonetheless failed to present a stirring progressive vision or even to craft a memorable speech.
With great perceptiveness, wit, and élan, Barber provides a startling meditation on truth and powerand the truth of power, which is the responsibility of the elected not to an idea but to the electorate. He identifies the fault lines that future progressive candidates must straddle if they are to winand the gift they must have, if they are to be great, of calling forth the best in their fellow citizens. In the end, Barber give us a unique portrait of our compelling and maddening ex-president, and the hopes and disillusionments he represents.
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Read an Excerpt
The Road to Camp David
A WINTRY SATURDAY in 1995. The weak sun bleached the landscape along the winding roads of rural Maryland leading to Camp David and beyondon into memory's interior regions, doubling back into distant personal history. As an academic political philosopher more interested in the culture of power than those who cultivated power had ever been interested in me, I was stepping through the looking glass. I had often peered through that glass with a social scientist's curious eye to catch a glimpse of power. I was now about to become, however briefly and superficially, power's counselor. The president's interlocutor.
Three oversized SUVs secluded us behind darkened windows, transporting us the ninety miles from the White House to the Maryland hillside military installation President Franklin Roosevelt had turned into a weekend presidential getaway during World War Two. FDR had dubbed it Shangri-La, but Dwight Eisenhower renamed it for his grandson David. Although the president could make the trip by chopper in less than half an hour, we followed what seemed a meandering route that created an impression of rusticity and remoteness. The distance allowed us to imagine (as more than one president must have) that we were leaving behind the petty politics and cynical manipulation that defined Washington. And to fancy we were on our way to some Arcadia where ideas, even idealism, might flower alongside the mountain rhododendron.
The impression of rusticity was reinforced by the fact that the participantsin our small symposium, though we had first assembled inside the Beltway at the White House, would join the debate with the president well outside the Beltway, out of earshot of its gossiping journalists and career cynics for whom power was the only useful commodity. This was important to us because, while we journeyed to the land of power, we came from the land of truth and fancied that our task was simply to speak truth to power. Our task would be all the easier because we would converse under the firm philosophical hand of Bill Galstonnominally a domestic policy adviser on President Clinton's staff but to us an academic political theorist with a very considerable reputation who, despite service to the presidential campaigns of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis and his position in the Clinton administration, had retained a semblance of genuine intellectual autonomy that promised a White House in which ideas might play some role and truth might still gain a hearing.
Our seminar that winter day had originated in a process already in place for more than a year. Prior to the State of the Union Message, overtures had been made to several dozen intellectuals, inviting them to contribute ideas to the speechwriting office. The preceding year, in late 1993, and again in late December 1994, Don Baer (director of speechwriting and after David Gergen's departure, director of communications) along with Bill Galston and others solicited advice and ideas for the upcoming State of the Union from outside intellectuals and academics. We were invited to address our remarks directly to the president, and we were toldand it later became evidentthat he received and read them himself. The time was just a few weeks after the 1994 congressional election, in which the Gingrich revolution had wrested the House away from the Democrats with eighty new Republican seats. After less than two years, the promise of 1992 was in doubt, endangered by the successive disasters of "don't ask, don't tell" (an approach to gays in the military that infuriated both gays and the military), an energy tax bill undone by oil state senators in the president's own party, and a universal health care debate undermined as much by poor conception and leadership as by demagogic health industry opposition.
The small group participating in the Camp David meeting this day had been chosen at least in part from a larger group of several dozen on the basis of "audition" comments composed in response to this radically changed political climate. I had met the president when I hosted his visit to our Rutgers service learning program in March 1993 (see chapter 6), and I knew a few of his staffers, including Eli Siegal, Henry Cisneros, and Galston, but it seemed the stuff of fantasy when Galston called to ask whether I might be free to join "a discussion with the president at Camp David."
On the appointed Saturday in January 1995, then, we were heading to Camp David, riding four or five to a vehicle. I traveled with Bill Galston, Alan Brinkley, an earnest, almost dour, young historian from Columbia University, and my collegial friend Robert Putnam, the lively Harvard (Kennedy School) sociologist who was charting the decline of social trust in America as evidenced by the decline of team bowling and other common social and civic activities. Flattering ourselves that we were soon to become the president's tutors, we were already sparring to secure ideological beachheads for the upcoming intellectual campaign to win his ear if not his very soul. Having persuaded myself I might in some small way actually change the world, I was chasing memories from graduate school and recalling the courses in which I had first read the canonical texts on philosophy and power that on this winter day suddenly seemed so relevant.
How many thinkers, far more gifted than our little coterie, had imagined that their cloistered ideals, impressed on the untutored minds of the powerful, might redirect history? I thought of Plato's journey to Syracuse to give unsolicited counsel to its embattled rulers, Machiavelli's courting of the Medicis in sixteenth-century Florence, John Locke flirting with revolutionary politics before England's 1688 "Glorious Revolution," Voltaire whispering into the ear of Frederick the Great, Rousseau issuing unheeded advice to Poland, Corsica, and his own native Geneva (which rewarded him by burning his books): all the foolish and vainglorious and finally aborted attempts by philosophers to cross the great divide separating reflection and actionto descend from the Olympian heights into Plato's darkened cave and force the women and men toiling there in the shadows to contemplate Truth, in whose glow their petty political struggles over passions and interests would simply evaporate. Like these nobly vainglorious predecessors, we would speak truth to powerthough in truth their example stood, to anybody willing to notice, as warnings against the hubris of the very enterprise in which we were zealously about to engage.
Thirty years earlier, I had studied with another would-be apprentice to power, a man of worldly ambition cloaked in wordy scholasticism. Pursuing a Ph.D. in government at Harvard at the beginning of the sixties, I watched the first long passion of Henry Kissinger as he awaited his call. How he waited. And waited and waited and waited. Kissinger had written in a popular vein about nuclear policy (initially rationalizing and then condemning limited nuclear war) and had authored the national security report issued by the Rockefeller Commission (Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York) in 1957. By the early sixties Kissinger was at Harvard, an impatient and importuning intellectual hungry for real-world influence. The gossip was he thought the new Kennedy administration, with its Cambridge fixationthe Boston Irish Kennedys seemed, in their pursuit of "the best and the brightest," nearly obsessed with the Yankee institution across the Charles River that historically had been Boston's critic and nemesiswould whisk him from the ivory tower on the Charles to the white house on the Potomac. There, where the word was daily made flesh, Kissinger's strategic ideas might center a young president who had inherited a war in Indochina, a bitter feud with Fidel Castro, and a nuclear arms race, and who did not seem initially to have an internal compass to guide him in these fateful mattersother than his family's appetite for power and its penchant for unreflective truculence.
But it was not to happen that way. The war in Indochina would end up plaguing three administrations and tearing the nation to pieces, the feud with Castro would help kill the young president (Cuba was a subtext in many of Kennedy's troubles, including his tragic encounter with Lee Harvey Oswald), and the arms race would dominate and (some would argue) distort the nation's political and economic agenda for the next quarter of a century, until it bankrupted the Soviet Union and removed the Iron Curtain from history's stage forever. The call for Kissinger did not come, however, not from Kennedy and not from Lyndon Johnson after him. The brilliant young nuclear hawk who had cut his teeth analyzing Europe's nineteenth-century realpolitik must have wondered whether, had he been brought into Kennedy's circle, he might have identified and treated the causes of all three traumas and so spared the nation several of its modern tragedies.
Kissinger's exclusion from power did not end until he joined the Nixon administration, where the realism that filled him with cold war ardor and enamored him of nuclear posturing was turned to the purposes of making peace in Vietnam as well as achieving détente with China and, in time, Russia too. Kissinger would finally triumph in the world of action, burnishing Nixon's reputation for brilliance in international affairs. Though I despised Kissinger's views and, in my own youthful idealism, distrusted his realpolitik approach to nuclear strategy, I was, in my devotion to ideas with political bite, not so very different from him. Perhaps we detest most the enemies who resemble us. With the same certainty that Kissinger imagined the nation needed his tough nuclear diplomacy, I imagined it needed my radical critique. Professor and pupil, my nemesis and I agreed: ideas mattered.
On the substance of ideas, we disagreed (though I alone noticed). I opposed the emerging war in Vietnam, I chastised the Kennedy administration for its fixation on Castro and its blindness to his impotence (other than as America's enmity empowered him), and I rued the insistence on making communism and the communists into bogeymen whose existence justified the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, endless arms expenditures, self-righteous and moralizing foreign interventions, and a curtailing of civil and political rights within this country that did more to legitimate than counter communism's fear of freedom. Of course, he was already Henry Kissinger, while I was just a brash twenty-two-year-old graduate student filled with anonymous conviction.
I do not intend here to try to defend my youthful views, though for the most part I still stand by them, at least inasmuch as they spoke to those times. What counts now is that then, as on the day I journeyed to Camp David, I believed that ideas and even idealsif well grounded in history and reasonshould and could count. Against the "toughminded" counsel of hardboiled politicos like Harold Ickes, James Carville, and Dick Morris, I thought that a presidency without a moving vision rooted in high ideals could not (and would not) succeednot even in its own narrow political terms, certainly not in the long term.
That is perhaps why some of us from the Harvard government department who were enrolled in courses with Kissinger felt an ambivalent kinship for a man whose views we could not abide and whose cold pride and seeming self-importance offended our democratic instincts. For Kissinger was engaged in the great debate, in what Machiavelli regarded as an encounter with the dead and what the Burkean British philosopher Michael Oakeshott (my tutor in the fifties at the London School of Economics) had called the "conversation with eternity." We knew that if government was only about men, or simply about laws (the usual formulas), and not also about ideas, we would all be the worse for it. Whether this is actually so is a leitmotif of this essay.
At the Camp David seminar to which we were being escorted that January, the arms race and the cold war (both long since over) would hardly be issues for a president focused on the domestic agendaalthough, ironically, nuclear testing would come to haunt Clinton's last year and a half in office, as it had haunted Kennedy's first. The refusal of the Senate to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty evoked momentarily the battles of the early sixties. But our battles in January 1995, in the wake of the disastrous November elections and the failure of the energy and health care bills, were to be of a different sort: on nearly every issue, from welfare economics to tax reform, old Democrats confronted new. Roosevelt coalition radicals still defended the welfare state against Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) partisans who had helped forge the Clinton agenda around government downsizing and reorganization. The New Democrats were taking credit for winning back the White House by adopting positions in the center after twenty-four years in which the party had languished on the left and there had been but a single Democratic president (the unlucky Jimmy Carter squeezed between Nixon and Ford, and Reagan and Bush). In fact, we were about to debate not merely the character of the Clinton presidency but the nature of the Democratic Party and the relevance of its traditional New Deal and Great Society ideals in a world hostile to government and utterly seduced by markets. Bill Clinton's Democratic Party was to define a new landscape already described in broad strokes by Bill Galston and the DLC. What we said might help determine the form that definition took.
Bill Galston was utterly without pretense, unassuming to a fault. It crippled him to a degree in positioning himself inside the White House, but to his credit he refused to play turf war games. His name does not appear in the index of George Stephanopoulos's All Too Humannor, for that matter, does the name of any intellectual brought from the outside to counsel the president. For George (though George was at Camp David that Saturday), ideas and those who carried them seemed to be secondary. For the president, however, substance counted, and so Galston had the only credential he required.
A University of Maryland political theorist with close ties to the communitarian movement, and the author of a number of books, including his widely read Liberal Purposes, Galston had been issues director for the Mondale campaign in 1984 and had forged close links to the DLC's Progressive Policy Institute. (Clinton himself had been chairman of the DLC, resigning only when he declared for the presidency.) Galston had come to Clinton's attention in 1989, after publishing a striking political essay called "The Politics of Evasion." In that essay, written with Elaine Kamarck (later a key adviser in the Gore presidential campaign), Galston offered a potent and controversial critique of the Democratic Party, suggesting that by clinging to traditional New Deal core constituencies the party had lost the center (and the South); and that until it once again conveyed "a clear understanding of, and identification with, the social values and moral sentiments of average Americans," it would neither regain the White House nor even maintain its hold over the Congress.
Galston became the political theorist of the 1992 campaign, but though he served prominently on Clinton's transition team, he felt certain (as he told me during an early visit) that he would not stay on into the new term, since he had scarcely a single serious ally within the White House staff he was helping to constitute. Except for one, he later allowedBill Clinton.
Galston was naturally drawn to "big picture" issues of rhetoric, strategy, and vision, even though he worked on more pedestrian domestic issues with a fellow DLC alumnus, Bruce Reed. He had introduced the "new covenant" language that had been so useful in defining the president's early interest in public/private partnerships and in cultivating an approach to responsibility that made citizens and their elected representatives colleagues in action rather than adversarial clients and providers. The phrase "new covenant" recalled America's Puritan past and resonated with overtones of the social contract tradition that was part of the American founding. It was a phrase with iconic value for the early Clinton agenda, though like so many seeming icons it had a relatively short shelf life in Clinton's restive White House.
Galston occupied one of the power offices in the White Houseadvantaged not because of its size (it was a tiny, demeaning closet compared with the palatial suites available over in the Old Executive Office Building across the driveway from the West Wing) but by virtue of its proximity to the Oval Office just across the hall. He had been soliciting outside intellectual counsel for the president from the beginning, especially around the State of the Union speeches. The interactions took the form of policy briefings, "ideas" breakfasts, and now intellectual seminars. For example, a key theme for the first inaugural had been the question whether through work and nurture we can "force spring"; according to George Stephanopoulos, the idea had been borrowed from Father Tim Daley's computer from notes he had made as a spiritual adviser and friend to Clinton prior to Father Tim's death.
The president's openness to outside counsel began early and endured throughout both terms, thanks in part to Galston, who understood that the poor reputation of government provided uncertain ground for action in the first Democratic administration in a dozen years. Through outside counsel, Galston hoped to reinforce his own campaign to relegitimize both civil society and government, and thus overturn Ronald Reagan's widely accepted claim that government was part of the problem facing the nation rather than part of the solution.
In my Harvard years back in the early sixties, government had not yet suffered the assault on its authority that was to be launched a few years later and that Reagan was to exploit so effectively. By the late sixties, of course, things were already changing. Both the Left and the Right were conspiring in efforts to de-authorize public authoritythe Left with its claim that the government's "imperialist" role in Vietnam, no less than its "police state" tactics against urban unrest, reflected "illegitimate authority," and the Right with its nineteenth-century libertarian dogmas equating strong government with economic servitude and individual dependency (dogmas that eventually got Ronald Reagan elected to the presidency and give Rush Limbaugh his talk radio persona today). This twin assault contributed in our own era to a delegitimation of government that encouraged a Democratic president in 1997 to boast that the "end of the era of big government" had arrived, and helped put George W. Bush in the White House in 2001.
Forty years ago, when presidents like Eisenhower and Kennedy commanded widespread respect, no one questioned the integrity of government or thought to disbelieve "authoritative" intelligence estimates (later shown to be vastly overstated) making the Soviet Union America's equal in armaments. The Right used these estimates to scare the public into ratcheting up the arms race; the Left used them to warn of Armageddon and urge immediate disarmamenteven unilateral disarmament. As genetic engineering and global warming haunt our nights in this era, nuclear winter and the balance of terror haunted our days back then; for those issues dominated not only our national policy debates but ordinary consciousness. That is why, as a young man with a background in physics and philosophy, I could be drawn to graduate study in politics and write a master's thesis on strategic policy. That is why in the fall of 1961, even as I was vehemently protesting the consequences of America's cold war national policies, I enrolled in Henry Kissinger's national security course, the so-called Defense Seminar. That is why so many of my fellow Harvard students with humanities backgrounds plunged into social science graduate training the way, today, students rush into M.B.A. and law school programs.
Now the national security seminar was a course that seemed designed not at all for Harvard graduate students but for the Washington fellows from the State Department and the Defense Department as well as members of the national intelligence community who as "special students" and part-time degree seekers were looking to add intellectual firepower to midlevel careers in the national security establishment. Unlike these fellows, for whom the seminar was an obligatory rite of passage, I was taking the seminar as a critic of cold war strategic ideas and military policies I opposed and reviled.
The material we studied under Kissinger's stern tutelage for our own radical purposes was truly bizarre, but notable because the then fashionable "rational calculus" style of strategic thinking where analysts did cold-blooded assessments of competing nuclear strategies persists todayboth in the new debates about a missile shield that preoccupied the last year of the Clinton administration and are on the Bush/Powell agenda, and in the "rational choice" approach to economics and policymaking that is today so disturbingly dominant in our nation's graduate schools. The looney logic of this hyper-rational approach posed such questions as: Should the United States defend itself against the Soviet Union's supposed might with "counter-city" nuclear strategies that envision deterring any form of attack by threatening total nuclear war against civilian populations? ("Hit one of our missile silos, and we'll blow Moscow, Leningrad, and Smolensk off the map!") Or should it deploy a "counter-force" strategy aimed at taking out the other side's nuclear arsenal in a preemptive strike? ("If the Russkies are gonna hit us sometime, let's take out their strategic forces right now, preemptively, before they can put their fingers on the nuclear trigger!") A concomitant of such reasoning was calculating "acceptable casualty" figures in the icy manner of analysts like Herman Kahn at the Rand Corporation. Kahn's strategic ruminations led him to the conclusion that 40 to 50 million civilians would be an unfortunate, even troubling, but not necessarily unreasonable price to pay to "prevail" in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets.
It is hard nowadays to take seriously the doomsday atmospherics such authoritative public thinking generated. Even today, four or five years after our January meeting at Camp David, when nuclear testing is once again on the nation's agenda (with the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in October 1999) and concerns about nuclear proliferation and nuclear terror by rogue states have reignited a certain nuclear anxiety, the atom bomb remains remote from everyday American consciousness. There were no demonstrations, no nationwide debates, no moral outcries when Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott deep-sixed the treaty. Contrast this with the daunting if comical anxieties that, back in my New York City junior high school in the early fifties, had us regularly enduring civil defense drills in which we practiced eluding the consequences of nuclear holocaust by diving under our desks (the desks were sturdier then) and were taught to look for and obey those murky yellow Civil Defense "Shelter" logos that decorated public buildings.
The fear, some would call it paranoia (but then, the nuclear bombs were real and the threats to use them credible), that enveloped America at the height of the cold war was everywhere in evidence. Pursuing readiness, the government arranged in secret for Arthur Godfrey (Oprah Winfrey's Pleistocine Age forebear) to record a public service message soothingly announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, America is under attack!" Obviously, the recording never aired, but popular culture refracted the lurking fear over and over again in movies like On the Beach, Seven Days in May, and Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Doctor Strangelove.
Doctor Strangelove's hysterical hyper-rational logic was not only quite mad, but accurately captured the actual doctrine of MAD (mutually assured destruction) being purveyed by Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling, a game theorist from MIT who visited the Kissinger seminar to discuss the "costs and benefits [sic]" of competing nuclear war scenarios. Yes, there were benefits of nuclear annihilation, though it is hard today to recall precisely what they were.
Excerpted from THE TRUTH OF POWER by Benjamin R. Barber. Copyright © 2001 by Benjamin R. Barber. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Internationally renowned political theorist Benjamin R. Barber is the Kekst Professor of Civil Society at the University of Maryland and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos in New York City, where he lives.
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