Monday, December 22, 2008


Some days back, President-elect Obama chose Steven Chu, a physics professor at University of California, Berkeley, as his secretary of energy. Chu won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997.

Some American presidents and secretaries of state (and one almost-but-not-quite president) have won the Nobel Peace Prize. But, unless I miss my guess, Chu must be the first Cabinet nominee to have won a Nobel science prize.

Republican administrations have certainly had some personnel with academic backgrounds, such as Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Greg Mankiw and Martin Feldstein. But the Democrats have been the party that has been more closely identified with academic intellectuals.

President Kennedy famously said to assembled Nobel laureates at a 1962 White House dinner: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."

Since his death, the notion of Kennedy himself being intellectual has been largely debunked. (Not that being intellectual is necessarily a good quality in someone with a job like that.) All of the appreciation of high culture in the family was on the part of the First Lady. The president made a reasonably good show of appreciating it, both to burnish his public image, and to placate his long-suffering wife.

And many believe that the book for which Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize, Profiles in Courage, was ghost-written by Ted Sorensen.

But the point is that Kennedy, like many modern Democrats, played to an intellectual constituency.

That seems to be just fine with some Republicans. They sometimes delight in referring to intellectual Democrats as "eggheads". There are indications that that term predates Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor, who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956. But if you look at a picture of Stevenson, the name seems to fit. And the word was popularized through its use against Stevenson by Republicans, during those campaigns.

George Will, in this column from 2000, challenged Stevenson's intellectual credentials. But I suppose the Eisenhower campaign was fine with their opponent's intellectual image. They probably wanted to portray Ike as the friendly man of action, in contrast to the brooding egghead, paralyzed by his thoughts. On the other hand, some Democrats considered Eisenhower a smiling airhead, who replaced the Cabinet of new dealers with one filled with car dealers.

These days, when the culture wars, which were arguably in their infancy during the Eisenhower years, are in full bloom, those competing images still come into play in presidential campaigns. McCain and Palin were accused of running an anti-intellectual campaign. Also, before McCain was nominated, three Republican presidential candidates expressed disbelief in the theory of evolution, during a debate.

No one seems to want to come right out and say it, but I think one driver of the Obamacon phenomenon, i.e., those of us toward the right-hand side of the political spectrum who supported Obama in the recent election, is in part a rejection of this anti-intellectual trend. Was that a good enough reason? Maybe, maybe not. But what's done is the done, and now we'll see the results.


Terry L. Johnson said...

As a Republican I am fine with Dr. Chu on Obama's cabinet - egghead or not.

Based on Mr. Obama's words and actions to date: I wonder if his cabinet will be all that important to his administration.

The proliferation of, The President's Office of This and That make it appear that he'll be operating a shadow organization without benefit of review and approval of its membership.

It may very well be that a Cabinet post in the Obama administration is rather like being President of the local Rotary Club.

schiller1979 said...

Terry, thanks for your comment. I agree that Obama seems to be aiming to centralize policy-making in the White House at least as much as his recent predecessors. For instance, I wrote recently about his creation of yet another economic council, in addition to CEA and NEC.

However, that is part of a trend that began during FDR's presidency. That subject is somewhere on my things-to-do list of possible future blog posts.

Obama's "team of rivals" cabinet will probably not having anything near the influence of the Abraham Lincoln original.