Obama the intellectual?
Posted by Ron Coleman on June 3, 2008
My friend Pamela Geller offers, in somewhat more polemic language than I would use, a nonetheless compelling antidote to the largely unexamined conception — to some extent uncritically passed along by me — that Barack Obama has serious intellectual achievements of which he can rightly boast.
I very much appreciate the point. It’s one I began to ponder at about the same time her post went up, just by coincidence. I recalled that, like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama was a law professor at one point, and that Clinton, too, was frequently cited by supporters as a genius, a genuine intellectual — “brilliant,” as they say.
My thinking regarding both of them was the same: Intellectuals may achieve many things, but if they are truly intellectuals there is inevitably some novel or at least rigorous contribution to some art, science, philosophy or other body of thought-powered endeavor, such as law, by which that intellection may be proved and measured.
And in the case of both men (the comparison keeps coming up), there is neither. There is no book or book chapter, no judicial opinion in a case where one of them acted as counsel, no published article in a scholarly or professional work. There is not even a genuinely original great work of oratory or say, a riveting course-pack.
Intellectuals are as intellectuals do. Bill and Barack utilized their credentials, as they had every right to and as almost everyone else does, as stepping stones toward the realization of their grand ambitions. But neither of them can in any way be credited as having demonstrated a genius for anything other than achievement of that ambition. And this is not the same, we should recall, as a genius for leadership or government, with which we might credit a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan. Neither man can be credited with being the moving or creative force behind the building of any great institution, public or private; of a noteworthy government program, initiative or policy; or a political movement that transcended the political institutions of their time and place.
There is no reason that a President must be any of these things. But we should be clear-eyed about what those who seek to be President do and do not offer. No one ever burdened John McCain with the title of “brilliant,” “genius” or “intellectual,” and he therefore need not defend himself on those scores. There is, however, a consistent bias among liberals to believe that because, as they cannot but see it, their causes are the ones most creditable to reason and intellect, that their candidates — even the most obviously dull Ivy League graduates — are the “thinking person’s” choice. Of course, by contrast their adversaries are chimps, dullards, genial national hosts. This contrast — Democrats smart, Republicans dumb — is consistently echoed by a press corps which, outside mainly the New York Times, wouldn’t by dint of its own intellectual or academic achievements know a genuinely original or scholarly insight if you whispered it right into their earpieces.
So be it. It is worthwhile to read Pam’s piece, however screechy it is (is this not her charm?), to get another side of the Obama-as-brilliant meme. Little by little the reality of the very humanness of this young, undeniably bright politician is replacing the messianic fervor and massive mythologizing of only a few months ago. He may yet be President, after all. And if he ever is, frankly, reducing him to human scale is probably doing him a favor.
UPDATE: Mainstream media, big blogging catch on.