When a terrorist attack killed American personnel in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, Republican foreign policy wonks were suddenly very busy. There was blame to cast and danger to assess, and their opinions were in unusually high demand. One of their number, however, was busy with a meltdown of different proportions: Victoria Coates was in Los Angeles, at the Getty Museum, opening a show called “The Last Days of Pompeii.” In one life, Coates is a professional art historian who describes her scholarship as “conservative with a small ‘c.‘“Š” She’s interested in the classics, the canon; she likes works that can be analyzed in terms of “context, original intentions, practical functions, that kind of thing.” In her other life, Coates is a national security adviser to politicians who are conservative with a big “C.” In 2011, she was on the presidential campaign trail with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Now she’s the chief foreign policy brain for Sen. Ted Cruz.
With her boss running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, Coates is toggling back and forth between her two careers. She’s about to release her first commercial book, a glossy survey of famous artworks that celebrate democratic societies. “The purpose of this book is to highlight the synergy between liberty and creativity,” she writes in the introduction to David’s Sling — named after Michelangelo’s famous statue, crafted at the height of the Renaissance-era Florentine Republic — “and so to bring a fresh perspective to both.” At the same time, she’s busy making the case that Cruz would be the best defender of this legacy of demokratia, as she calls it in her chapter about Athens and the Parthenon.
Coates came onboard soon after Cruz arrived in Washington in 2013, which put her in the middle of the senator’s infamous filibuster of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense secretary — an episode that got the Texan labeled “McCarthyite” by many for his attacks on his fellow Republican. At first, Cruz wanted help with talking points. Now, Coates is not only Cruz’s senior national security adviser in the Senate, she’s also his campaign’s main international strategist. Says Coates’s friend and agent Keith Urbahn, who worked for years for former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “My tagline for her is, ‘The most interesting Capitol Hill staffer out there.‘“Š”
Coates’s unlikely road to Washington started at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her art-history Ph.d. and taught — and found herself frustrated by the ivory tower’s liberal homogeneity. “Everybody thinks the same, and it’s shocking that anyone would think differently,” says Coates, who grew up in a Republican family. “I mean, everybody’s jokes are the same jokes. It’s like a club you don’t belong to.” To let off steam, she started posting at the brand-new website RedState, under the moniker “Academic Elephant.” Her qualifications were composed of the political-science courses she’d taken in college and a passion for international politics she’d nursed on her own time. But her commentary on military issues and national security caught the attention of RedState founder Erick Erickson, who made her a regular contributor — and then of Rumsfeld, who, Urbahn says, first noticed her when she “put together a blog post that systematically dismantled” Bob Woodward’s book on the Bush White House, State of Denial.
Questions of doctrine and background aside, Cruz’s staffers say Coates has earned their trust and the senator’s.
A few months later, Erickson got a call from a Rumsfeld staffer. “He said, ‘The secretary has been having this guy’s work printed out for him for his regular daily briefing package, and he would really like to see if this guy, given his background and expertise in the military, would help write his memoir,‘“Š” Erickson recalls. “I fell over laughing and said: ‘One, not a guy. Two, not in the military.‘“Š”
Rumsfeld needed someone with the chops to turn his vast personal archive into a book — in other words, an academic simpatico with his politics. Coates fit the bill. She describes her four years working on Known and Unknown, Rumsfeld’s 800-page autobiography, as a crash course in foreign policy. “His life goes from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 and beyond, so that was a tutorial,” she says. As she wrapped up the project in 2011, she was planning to return to art history full-time. Then a friend from RedState, Chip Roy, called to tell her that his boss, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, was assembling a last-minute presidential campaign — was she interested in serving as foreign policy adviser?
“At the Perry camp, everything was going so quickly,” Roy explains when I ask him how he made the case for bringing in an art historian to do foreign policy. After Perry flamed out in 2012, Roy became chief of staff for Cruz. It didn’t require much of a sales job to bring Coates along with him. “It doesn’t take long to say, ‘She’s earned the trust of Donald Rumsfeld,‘“Š” he says. “You have your Ph.D. in anything, everyone knows you are educated. The question is, are you expert in this area?”
That is no small question, argues Kori Schake, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution who thinks Cruz would have been wise to pick a wonkier counselor. Cruz “is one of the least experienced candidates overall, and that shows up in his reactions on foreign and defense policy issues,” Schake says. “Foreign and defense policy tend to be gateway voting issues — people look at candidates and say, ‘Are they serious on these issues?’ Only if you pass that test do Americans go on to pay attention to the things they actually vote on.”
Coates, for one, seems confident in her unusual résumé. “If you’re an art historian and not a good foreign policy adviser, I could see it being a liability,” she says. But “if you’re a successful adviser, and know your subject matter,” then she believes the extra expertise “becomes an asset” — giving her, and by extension the senator, a broader and more creative way to look at the world.
Her approach to foreign policy is certainly outside the box. “She’s definitely not a neoconservative,” Urbahn says. Roy calls her “not reflexively hawkish — rather she has a well-informed peace-through-strength worldview.” When I press Coates to describe her doctrine — hawk? neocon? realist? — she doesn’t offer much clarification. “I think doctrines are dangerous,” she says. “I think they lead to sloppy thinking.” She knows that makes her rather hard to pin down. “Yes, I’m a hawk. Yes, I’m a dove,” she says. “There are times I would advocate great reluctance to use U.S. force. There are times I would advocate a robust use of U.S. force.”
Questions of doctrine and background aside, Cruz’s staffers say Coates has earned their trust and the senator’s. “Her great talent is following what is driving the news and finding a way to allow Senator Cruz’s message on national security to resonate,” says Cruz’s press secretary, Catherine Frazier. “She’s a good writer and can distill information in a meaningful way,” Roy says. “People ask, ‘How’s she qualified for advising a presidential nominee?’ All I can say to that is, ‘How are any advisers able to advise anybody?’ You have to know your subject, but it has more to do with connecting with the principal in a way that resonates.”