The Art Historian Advising Ted Cruz

How an art historian became Ted Cruz’s foreign policy guru

This illustration can only be used with the Nora Caplan-Bricker piece that originally ran in the 7/25/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
National Journal
July 24, 2015, 1 a.m.

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.”

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