Likelihood of Success

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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.

Personification of Wisdom, Newark historic courthouseI 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 scholarlyPersonification of Power, Newark historic courthouse 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.

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8 Responses to “Obama the intellectual?”

  1. Jack said

    I think a lot of people confuse political genius with real genius, and therefore easily confuse the idea of political achievement with real achievement.

    Then again a lot of people are easy to confuse.

  2. Cindy said

    Eh, Obama’s “Faith From My Fathers” is pretty impressive, could become a classic in literature on race, identity, or culture. Obama is clearly a thinker, someone who reads widely and is well-expressed; whether he will be able to translate this into leadership remains to be seen, but I’m optimistic. There’s no reason to believe bottom-of-the-class McCain reads much at all, his lack of basic knowledge is regularly on display, that’s going to be a problem.

  3. Cindy, you may be right. I will take a great speech as a beginning point; it’s certainly more than Clinton can point to even at the end of his career. Only time will tell, as tends to be the case with speeches; contemporaneously, they are views through the usual partisan lenses.

    This is not true, by and large, of scholarly writing, of course. Certainly not to the same extent. And that is one reason that sort of work is a better indicator of intellectual merit.

    It’s also nastier to have someone else ghostwrite a law journal article or treatise than a speech — though it happens all the time.

  4. Jack said

    Intellectuals always make the best leaders.
    Take Churchill for instance.

    Not Winston, of course, I mean Ward Leroy…

  5. craig mclaughlin said

    I went to a landgrant college– which is a shout out to my favorite essayist Joseph Epstein– and I have no intellectual pretensions, I really don’t. I know there’s lot’s of stuff I don’t know. Lot’s of categories of stuff.

    Yet every ‘intellectual’ I encounter in mass media is of the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin. Or Barack Obama. Worthless and weak, the lot of them.

    I’ll bet you five dollars I’ve read more books and understood them better than Obama.

  6. […] point, I think, is that the Obama myth, despite the efforts of some of us to address it on precisely this point, is so inflated that people would actually believe that he would be the subject of a level of […]

  7. […] of the Honorable Barack Obama; we know that is unnecessary seeing as how he is a certified intellectual and academician. His words are beyond diagramming; they are our future, made […]

  8. […] of the Honorable Barack Obama; we know that is unnecessary seeing as how he is a certified intellectual and academician. His words are beyond diagramming; they are our future, made […]

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