How can a journalist closeted 10 floors above Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan say anything useful about the cultural elite? After all, the weatherman doesn't report the size and drift of a hurricane from inside the eye of the storm. Does the editor-in-chief of this magazine, whose name is modestly missing from NEWSWEEK'S list of the culture's elite 100, want an article a clef on what goes on inside this CE fiefdom? Dan Quayle, look at the impossible position your rhetoric has put this writer in.

From his own office inside the White House, the vice president has located the cultural elite. He isn't thinking of Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. The CE, he says, inhabits "the newsrooms, sitcom studios and faculty lounges across America." But that excludes a whole lot of far worthier folks. For starters, it ignores the capitalists who actually own what Marx would call the cultural elite's "means of production." It also leaves out those cultural elitists who sit on the boards of our most prestigious private universities but don't own a key to the faculty lounge. Above all, it ignores those intellectuals, most of them nonacademic neoconservatives, who generated the idea of a liberal cultural elite more than a decade ago. Among them, as it happens, is Irving Kristol. He's the father of William, who once belonged to the Harvard Faculty Club, is now Quayle's highly respected chief adviser and is known among the cognoscenti as "the real Billy Kristol."

Unlike "the establishment," the shibboleth of '60s radicals, Quayle's "culture elite" conjures up images of hidden conspirators. It came to life in the mid-1970s as "the new class," a term intellectuals borrowed from Milovan Djilas's study of Yugoslavia's Communist elite and used to identify the rising group of "cultural bourgeoise" whose capital is no longer money, as it was for the old class, but its control over valuable knowledge and information. The Magna Charta of the New Class was the GI Bill of Rights, which opened the doors of the nation's universities to returning veterans of World War II. They, in turn, eventually, sired the '60s generation of cultural-cage-rattling baby boomers. Armed with advanced degrees, the New Class took jobs in burgeoning government bureaucracies, staffed the huge nonprofit foundations (where interest from old-class money was used to subsidize the production of still more information and knowledge), swelled university faculties and, of course, populated the growing media empires. Sociologist Daniel Bell put it best when he observed that the new Classniks were not the creators of culture (other folks did that) but its transmitters; they created a market for the mass distribution of cultural products, much of which they themselves consumed, and from which they earned income and social status.

What bothered Irving Kristol in the late '70s was the bias he perceived within the New Class against private business and in favor of an expanded public sector. The Classmates do not control the media, he argued, "they are the media-just as they are our educational system, our public health and welfare system and much else." Moreover, he warned, they are ambitious, frustrated and, determined to redistribute power to the government where "they will have a major say in how it is exercised."

Kristol was only half right. When Ronald Reagan won the White House, many younger members of the New Class eagerly sold their intellectual services to business-friendly think tanks in the nation's capital. Now, after more than a decade of successive Republican administrations, elite neoconservatives wield considerable influence through public-policy centers like the American Enterprise Institute and through government agencies like the National Endowment for the Humanities. Reflecting on this shift in what he calls the nation's "culture wars," Bell now sees New Class intellectuals contending for power from different spheres of influence. Liberals and assorted radicals predominate in the universities, where conservative professors feel isolated and scorned. But neoconservatives have the ear of policymakers in Washington, where liberals feel beleaguered. Each side, Bell argues in a typically lucid essay in the summer issue of The Wilson Quarterly, covets the turf that the other now controls.

Because his purpose is wholly political, Quayle has targeted only the liberal camp for criticism. In particular, he has focused attention on those products of popular culture-movies and television entertainment-which reach a mass audience and rely on a mass market. That's where the votes are. Surveys show that the people who bring us movies and television entertainment are far more liberal on social and political issues than the audiences that consume their products. They are, as a group, libertarian on sexual issues, overwhelmingly non- or even anti-religious and indifferent to the prosaic virtues described as "family values." But just as the long-running "All in the Family" did not produce a nation of Archie Bunkers, so is it unlikely that sitcoms like "Married With Children" will, in themselves, spawn many Bundy wanna-bes. As sociologist Peter Berger observes, "People watch these things because they want to laugh. They can be amused even if they don't agree with a program's ideological slant."

Nonetheless, in fixing national attention on the dubious products of the popular media, Quayle has chosen the one aspect of American culture about which everyone has a gripe. Like a smog that refuses to lift, mass-produced images and sounds drift into every corner of society, irritating the eyes and ears more often than they delight and instruct. Yet there are significant pockets of resistance.

Running parallel to popular culture-and rarely acknowledged by the national press-are countercultural institutions, most of them religious, in which the young are socialized by different voices, different values. Orthodox Jews, most Mormons and Muslims plus millions of serious evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics still preside over sanctuaries, schools and summer camps, still publish periodicals and intellectually sophisticated journals, and produce radio and television shows. These folks address the same hot-button topics: abortion, homosexual rights, education and the family. But they draw their conclusions independent of the conventional wisdom. Outside their own constituencies, few leaders of these "adversarial" cultures make anyone's list of elites. But they have their battalions. According to University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, there is a "culture war" underway between Americans of a variously "orthodox" bent and those who eschew religiously grounded values for those of their own choosing.

No doubt Quayle had these religious constituencies in mind when he attacked the established "culture elite." The phrase can have another meaning, one that seems almost quaint in the age of Nintendo. It could apply to the world of disciplined thought and argument where capacious minds of diverse persuasions debate public affairs in language the intelligent and concerned layman can understand. Is there such a world?

To be sure, there are plenty of intellectuals around, but their relation to the wider society is different than it was a mere generation ago. In 1974, sociologist Charles Kadushin published "The American Intellectual Elite," which included his list of that era's 70 most prestigious thinkers. Several of them like Irving Howe, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Daniel Bell are still working. Many were literary figures like Lionel Trilling, now dead, for whom criticism of literature was a humanistic act of deep moral as well as esthetic concern. But as Queens College professor Morris Dickstein laments in his recent study of literary criticism, "Double Agent," many otherwise able critics today are hobbled by "eccentric scholarship, blinkered formalism, opaque jargon and politically motivated cultural stuffies."

What's striking about the current intellectual scene, says Bell, now 73, is how few individuals have come forward as culturally concerned intellectuals speaking to a wide public audience. Many feminists, he observes, are engaged in their own "enclave" concerns, as are many African-American scholars, although they have succeeded in making gender and race widely accepted analytic catagories. There are, he laments, few free-standing intellectuals who address the public directly, "no broad intellectual life and no broad intellectual public."

Rightly understood, the realm of culture is the realm of meaning. It is a mark of American society at the close of the second millennium that all substantive public issues--of the economy, of human rights, of the family and education, of foreign as well as domestic policy-are interrelated. That is, they are freighted with moral as well as social, political and economic consequence. In any society, it is the role of the cultural elites to provide shape and substance to public moral discourse. Bell may be unduly pessimistic, but if there is no significant audience for serious public discourse-and no one to so address them-what are cultural transmitters to transmit? What, for that matter, is left but entertainment for a prominent politician to attack? And what is left to publish but lists?

In 1988, at the close of the rose-colored Reagan era, a group of academics release books claiming that America, like Spain and Napoleonci France before it, is overextended and on the decline. One book, 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,' taps into the national morning-after Zeitgeist and ignites a loud ensuing political debate.

Yale historian Paul Dennedy writes 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,' a study of declining nations including Spain, Britain and the U.S.

Discovered by highpowered publisher Jason Epstein, the book gets a small first printing (9,000 copies) in January 1988

The New York Times Book Review lauds 'Rise and Fall'; NEWSWEEK and Time follow suit. The book becomes an instant best seller.

Kennedy is photographed for a New York Times Magazine profile holding the globe under his arm at sunset. The Times's editorial board invites him for lunch.

A fiery op-ed debate between declinists and optimists begins. Harvard's Joseph Nye writes a book rebutting Kennedy.

By early spring, just two months after Kennedy's book is published, Congress has caught the declinist bug and invites both Kennedy and Nye to testify before assorted committees

By 1990, the wall is down, the cold war is over and America swaggers into the gulf war. Declinism fever is passe.