The Intellectual as President

tags: Obama

Kevin Mattson teaches contemporary history at Ohio University and is the author of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon’s Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952 (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).

I belong to a small group. Overeducated and often underemployed, we read small magazines and argue politics, and we try to elevate those conversations with forays into literature, history, and philosophy. We are the dreaded I-word — "intellectuals." Rarely do we matter in public life. But back in 2008, it’s safe to say that Barack Obama seemed like one of us.

His biography screamed "intellectual." Consider his liberal-arts education at Occidental College, then at Columbia University. He could parse Democracy in America, cite morally-complex fare like T.S. Eliot’s poetry, and chat about All the King’s Men. When he embarked on community organizing, he framed activism in big questions of democracy. Before becoming a politician, Obama was a writer — not just Dreams From My Father, but numerous journalistic pieces. Most of us recognized his wit but also a finely tuned mind that could see both sides of a given issue. Some credited his law-school training — from Harvard, no less — but I think it was his willingness to be playful about ideas.

Remembering Obama in 2008 drove me to reread Norman Mailer’s classic 1960 essay about JFK, "Superman Comes to the Supermarket." Hopped up on his own brand of existentialism (and perhaps pot), Mailer saw in Kennedy a political hero who could combat the mass culture of the "supermarket, that homogeneous extension of stainless surfaces," and the doddering Eisenhower. Mailer cited Kennedy’s "cool grace" and political intelligence and was delighted that the future president had read his books (or at least named some). Mailer believed a hipster — his own exalted ideal — was about to enter the White House.

Mailer’s essay suffered its faults, but it still resonated when I thought back to the Obama of 2008. For I remember something my millennial students do not: just how "hot" politics became under George W. Bush. Consider the blunder in Iraq. The choice of war always felt predetermined, rushed, heated. And the man leading the initiative appeared uncurious. His malapropisms symbolized a scrambled brain. He admitted not reading books and called himself "the decider." His was the quintessential anti-intellectual presidency, and Obama’s politics of cool intelligence could, perhaps, defuse it. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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