WASHINGTON — Reportedly, following the replacement of Andy Card as White House Chief of Staff by Joshua Bolten, more changes of administration personnel are expected. Also there are the sudden openings at the White House, namely the vacancy Bolten leaves at OMB and the need to replace Claude Allen as domestic policy adviser. The problem the President and his staff have is finding replacements with “stature.” That is the word used in the media, “stature.”
Well, I shall admit that finding men and women of stature to take positions in American public life is a problem. I suppose Britney Spears has stature, but having as White House domestic policy adviser a woman with an exposed belly button would be inappropriate, even ridiculous. In the past a president’s chief domestic policy adviser arrived at the position with stature, as Mr. Allen did not. The most famous was, probably, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who held that position in the Nixon administration early in what was to be Moynihan’s long career in public life. Yet, though he was relatively young when he came to the Nixon administration, he was not without stature. He had already served with distinction in the Johnson administration. Before that as an academic and writer he was already famous for his learned observations about poverty, the black family, welfare reform, and other domestic conditions. When Moynihan moved on the United Nations and then to the Senate, other intellectuals of unquestioned stature were suggested for the office, most notably, Irving Kristol, who was then known as the “godfather” of neoconservatism.
There were in the 1960s and 1970s a lot of relatively young people arriving in government abounding with stature, for instance, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Outside of public service, in the realm of public thought, there were plenty of intellectuals of stature. Recall if you will William F. Buckley, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, or Gore Vidal — my old pal. Who are their equivalents today? Well, yes, there is Britney and I guess Paris Hilton.
I can think of no time in the history of the country when public life was so full of people without stature. The statureless condition exists for Democrats too. Who were the public figures of stature that came in with the Clinton administration? True, eventually there was a young woman about the age of Spears and Hilton, but she actually gained her stature in the administration. When she arrived she was no Pat Moynihan or Henry Kissinger.
Usually when I raise a problem in this column I arrive with the answer in hand. On this matter of stature, however, I am pretty much at a loss. Certainly the intellectual credentials of the people whom either a Republican or a Democratic president might appoint to a government post are as impressive as ever. Yet for some reason even highly credentialed candidates for public service have no stature.
The other day, I put this question to Henry Manne, an accomplished economist now in retirement who has been a major figure in economic study for several decades. He too was at a loss. Yet he did venture this thought. The economists who gained stature in the past, for instance Milton Friedman and George Stigler, gained their eminence because they solved big problems. There do not seem to be many such big problems to solve nowadays. This might also explain the lack of stature among Moynihan’s successors in the social sciences. The serious problems that social scientists tangled with from the 1930s through the 1970s are now sufficiently ameliorated; for instance what was once called “urban decay,” for instance racism and extreme poverty.
That leaves us with the question of why yesteryear’s public thinkers of stature have not been replaced. I am sure that amongst the liberal brethren there are many who are perfectly content that Michael Moore and Al Franken are liberal intellectuals comparable to Galbraith and Vidal, and possibly in some ways they are. Yet who from the right is the equivalent in terms of stature of Buckley? Is it one of our radio talk hosts? Not even Rush would make such a claim. I would welcome your thoughts. Why do public servants and public thinkers not attract the esteem they had in earlier eras?
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