The Washington Monthly did an excellent, ultimately sympathetic portrayal of Niall Ferguson a few years back that is well worth reading. It sums up the general “conservative intellectual” thing quite well.
His influence comes from his dramatic, sweeping intellectual style, whose theme is, more or less, “Everything you thought you knew about history is wrong.” Ferguson’s genius is for counter-conventional thinking, urging radical reinterpretations of topics that everyone else had pretty much considered settled. Ferguson is out of sync with the academy in style, politics, and manner, but he has been a useful intellectual prod, the appeal of his radical theories forcing mainstream academics to refine their own thinking. Read Ferguson for any real stretch of time, and you begin to imagine what it might have been like had Andrew Sullivan chosen as his topic the entire breadth of human history.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Ferguson was responsible for inserting the notion of a formal American empire into the public debate. Professors of imperial history around America started turning to his texts. Washington hawks from Richard Perle to Dinesh D’Souza to Bill Kristol drew on Ferguson’s ideas and arguments to help make the case not only for the war in Iraq but also for a revolutionary, if vaguely articulated, new role for America in the world. Within two weeks of arriving in the United States in the fall of 2002, to take up a teaching post at New York University, Ferguson had been summoned to Washington twice, once each by the Departments of Treasury and State, where he explained his convictions to policymakers; in Foggy Bottom, he met with Colin Powell–rarified company for a young historian.
To be sure, Ferguson says some frankly stupid things during the course of the article. But I do think some of what happens with so-called conservative intellectuals isn’t their fault. They’re bound to be contrarian (because other intellectuals are liberal) so the Hiatt/Slate/Peretz industrial complex will drool all over what they write. And the Republican party is always looking for someone with academic credentials to give its crackpot ideas a veneer of respectability. I’m sure it’s easy to be seduced by all of this.