The Current Crisis

Useless Wonks

Great presidents were never policy wonks. So how to explain people like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich?

By 12.14.11

Send to Kindle

WASHINGTON -- Do you recall in reading President Harry S. Truman's very good memoir, Years of Trial and Hope: 1946-1952, his scholarly dissection of the Federal Reserve System and discussion of low inflation's influence on relatively unstable growth? Actually, I do not either, and I read the book from cover to cover. Or how about Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who led our forces in vanquishing Hitler's war machine, became the first Supreme Commander of NATO and eventually president, serving until 1960? Do you remember his erudite discussions of domestic policy during his 1952 campaign? His plan to pare down the national debt with a temporary "surcharge" on the top 1.5% of income earners? And then there was, of course, his education policy that would include highly nutritious lunches to low-income students so the students would not be a burden on our healthcare system in future years? Well, I do not recall these discussions either.

Actually I do not recall Eisenhower's talking in such wonky ways about anything, and I know Truman's memoir was devoid of the stuff. It read too well. Of course, today both Truman and Eisenhower would have to be really up to the highest wonk standards if they hoped to run against Barack Obama or Newt Gingrich.

For that matter, our greatest president since the sainted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I speak of Ronald Reagan, was not a wonk at all. Nor were John F. Kennedy or Richard M. Nixon, and certainly not Lyndon B. Johnson. Jimmy Carter made a stab at being a wonk, but as with everything else he failed. The real wonks came with the maturing of the 1960s generation, most notably Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, but there were also those curiosities California's Jerry Brown and the ghost of 1972 Democratic convention, Gary Hart. They are a little long in the tooth to be legitimate wonks of the 1960s generation, but they tried -- as for a certitude Brown was weird enough.

The true policy wonk is a juggler of facts and trends and "ideas," who came out of the 1960s to wow all those whom he assaulted with his knowledge of government, of society, and the movies, rock & roll, and the cost of a gallon of milk. They have ideas for income distribution, the value of the dollar, for crime in the inner city, healthcare, the environment -- whatever is in the headline at the moment. They dream up policies for things whose policies are unclear. The problem of global warming? Cap and trade! Healthcare? Well, tax income at a certain percentage and apply the revenue to agreed-upon disbursements for earmarked segments of the population but with mandates that… oh, forget about it. The healthcare monstrosity should have earned every wonk a price on his head. With the 1960s generation came government policies for every aspect of the human condition and there has not been a good president elected since 1988. Barack Obama is the reductio ad absurdum of every policy wonk ever heard of.

Now steps forward Bill Clinton with a new book, Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy. The presumption he attaches to the word "smart" is typical of him and his fellow wonks. Would Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower have the temerity to claim any of their policies as being smart? They would not brag of their policies' stupidities but they would leave it to someone else to appraise their policies' merits -- and in the 1940s and 1950s "smart" was a word associated more frequently with couture or tailoring than with policy. Both Harry and Ike were far better presidents than Bill, the guy who got himself impeached and trapped by a Republican majority in both houses, leaving him muttering that "The era of big government is over."

Now with this insufferable book of wonkish chatter he has come forward and boasted of all that he achieved during his big-government-is-over days and proclaimed a future that will be dominated by the biggest government of all. It brings to mind another problem with wonks. Their wonkery is not rooted in principle or ethics. It is only rooted in their egos, which are fickle. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.