No one ever accused Ronald Reagan of being an intellectual. In fact, much of the establishment intellectual community had little regard for the ex-actor turned politician. Nevertheless, Reagan successfully built relations with and used intellectuals in his presidential campaigns and during his presidency. In fact, Reagan established the model for how Republican politicians can work with intellectuals, and, more importantly, helped build the modern conservative intellectual movement.
Reagan did not plan to build an intellectual movement–he just did so by being himself. In this respect (and in others, of course), Reagan stands in stark contrast to Richard Nixon, the most recently elected Republican president before Reagan. Nixon suffered from divisive and dysfunctional relationships with America’s intellectuals; in fact, he could not even find a Republican intellectual of his own, and so hired die-hard but reasonable Democrat Pat Moynihan as his in-house intellectual. Moynihan quickly realized the need for Republican presidents to obtain intellectual advice from their own party, and told Nixon as much. Moynihan recommended that Nixon develop a farm team of scholars who could provide him with conservative policy expertise. Nixon failed to do so, but Reagan did not.
Reagan started with Nixon administration veteran and Hoover Institution scholar Martin Anderson. Anderson collected almost 500 policy experts to endorse the Reagan candidacy and help the campaign develop ideas. As Theodore White described it, Reagan and Anderson made use of a developing “corps of intellectual outriders, absent in Republican politics since Theodore Roosevelt had given up the White House seventy-two years earlier.” As a result of this process, Reagan developed relationships with a host of conservative intellectuals. Because Reagan knew so strongly what he believed, though, he did not really need any one expert to guide him ideologically. Although Anderson had developed the superstructure for Reagan’s administration, the ideology was always clearly Reagan’s.
The superstructure was necessary, however, to implement the policy called for by the ideology. Reagan did not need anyone to tell him what to think, he knew what he thought. Everyone else did as well–at least, everyone who was listening. But Reagan often did need reliable detail experts who would make sure that his policies were being implemented throughout the bureaucracy. During his administration, Reagan used conservative intellectuals in line positions, where they could handle the fine points. He did not need them for the message or to know what he believed: He needed them to help show him how to carry out those beliefs.
Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan, in her savvy memoir of her time in the Reagan White House, cites her conversation with “a smart and sophisticated man” who also worked in the White House to explain how Reagan administered. According to Noonan’s friend, Reagan did not rule so much as “[t]he idea of Reagan ruled.” In this model, “Everybody around [Reagan] had a good idea of who he was and what he would do. He’d been in public life for twenty years, they knew what he stood for.” Rowland Evans and Robert Novak had a similar theory: Because of Reagan’s very clear and very public philosophy, “Ronald Reagan was the administration.”
Reagan became a dominant figure in the movement he helped to create. This dominance had its downsides. In the years after the Reagan administration, right-leaning intellectuals broke up into frequently fighting camps, making it hard for conservatives to agree on a candidate, and also making it hard for candidates themselves to agree on any one intellectual. While Reagan was president, however, conservative intellectuals generally agreed to back Reagan, just as liberals united in disdain for him. The strong and mostly unwavering feelings Reagan brought to the surface among Left and Right alike explained why he did not need a goodwill ambassador among America’s intellectual elites: Both sides had already made up their minds on the subject.
Reagan’s intellectual legacy lives on, and is too large not to have been intended. The list of pundits, experts, and intellectuals who worked in the Reagan administration is enormous: Bill Kristol, Ken Adelman, Bill Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Peggy Noonan, Dinesh D’Souza, Michael Ledeen, Richard Perle, Peter Robinson, Tony Snow, Martin Anderson, Murray Wiedenbaum, Checker Finn, Ann Coulter, Michael Horowitz, and Terry Eastland, just to name a few. Most of these people served in positions too junior to have spent significant time with Reagan himself, yet they all felt his affinity for idea people, and defend him to this day as the apotheosis of a conservative politician. If for no other reason, Reagan’s recruitment of these talents justifies his status as the most important president for the development of the conservative intellectual movement. After this legacy, his tremendous political and policy successes were just very rich gravy.