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Obama and the other intellectuals

by Michael Weiss

Posted: May 14, 2008 05:30 AM

One is unlikely to find a criticism of Barack Obama jotted in the pages of Jewcy magazine, my old digital shtetl up until a few months ago. But at the risk of interrupting the lovefest for a flawed national politician, allow me to add to what has already been said about Obama's interview on the Jewish Question with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg. From a terse Q&A, Jewcy's Politics Editor Daniel Koffler has found a "deeper and richer understanding of the American Jewish and Israeli experience [sic] than any previous presidential aspirant" has hitherto embodied -- a statement that would be too silly to countenance were it not for the presumptuousness behind it. Koffler of Teaneck, NJ might know something about the American Jewish experience, but how much? And what of the Israeli?

I've long thought that Obama needed rescuing from some of his more lock-step supporters, particularly those who credited him with moral maturity for not renouncing Jeremiah Wright in Philadelphia, then subtracted none of the credit after he did just that weeks later in North Carolina (and after nothing new was disclosed about the nasty pastor except the audacity of his booking schedule). This is a willingness, if not an eagerness, to be easily pleased and to have one's bias confirmed almost effortlessly.

But let's see now, Obama can namedrop Leon Uris and Philip Roth to a humorous American-Israeli journalist and suddenly he's an honorary member of Team Chosen! I can't wait until he compliments the continental breakfast at the King David Hotel and becomes the man to grab fate by the foreskin in Judea and Samaria...

I was rather struck by Obama's laughable assertion that a Jewish camp counselor gave him his short course in Altneuland utopia, and that the work of Roth and Uris filled in the rest of the blanks on Diaspora and Zionism. However, left out of Koffler's post is the fact that Goldberg cited both of those writers in his thoughtful Atlantic cover piece on the future of Israel, which Obama was good enough to admit he had read prior to sitting down for the interview. And even if he had come up with these allusions unbidden, what would that prove besides an ability to seize upon any proffered conversational trope for the sake of impressing his audience? Obama may well be the candidate to beat on ensuring Israel's security and keeping up antipathy toward Hamas, but the foregoing demonstrates his charisma and nothing more.

Though in saying so, I'm reminded of how dangerous that charisma can be when intellectuals who ought to know better find themselves in thrall to it.

John F. Kennedy's cultural tastes plumped in an easy-bake oven built for him by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and he famously collected artists and novelists and mandarins in order to strengthen his candlepower vicariously. Nothing like having a genuine brain in the White House with a real guest list. (One ingathering of Nobel winners gave posterity the not-bad line that the executive mansion hadn't seen such an assembly of intellects since Thomas Jefferson dined alone.) For the most part, though, the valets du pouvoir required little convincing to come running to the Round Table, which is why the whispers about "Camelot" took so long to expire after its knight errant did. The two honorable exceptions to this ignoble rule were the two finest literary critics then working in America: Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin.

Thus a 1962 dinner at the White House featured Kennedy inquiring of Wilson what his new book on the Civil War was about. Wilson referred him to the Introduction. Strike two came when the president then asked about another volume Wilson had authored on the Iroquois. Faced with an author's unlikely resistance to gibber on about his own work, particularly to someone who clearly hadn't read it, Kennedy added: "I suppose I'll have to buy it?" "I'm afraid so" came the cold reply from the owlish man of letters in what I would term the finest instance of Wilsonian idealism. (Wilson also joked, upon hearing Kennedy refer to Robert Frost as America's Virgil, that this made the meretricious president a modern Octavius. A real "knee-slapper.")

Similarly, in an effort to buck Kazin's forthcoming critical piece on him and his claque of dittoing eggheads, Kennedy and Schlesinger, who knew the number two critic, invited him over for state niceties. Offer accepted. But upon reading the only mildly toned-down result of their intervention -- Kazin's brilliant political essay, "Kennedy and the Other Intellectuals," which chided the cognoscenti's herd-like worship of a seeming bright young thing who nevertheless unintelligently invaded Cuba and brought the country to the brink of nuclear holocaust -- Jack joked to Schlesinger: "We wined him and dined him and talked about Hemingway and Dreiser with him, and later I told Jackie what a good time she missed, and then he went off and wrote that piece!" Some aren't so easily charmed by superficial learning or the throwaway reference, yet the temptation in intellectuals to abase themselves before executive power is strong and persistent.

The Goldberg interview might indeed have taken a more interesting turn had Obama furnished us with a few clues as to what, exactly, in Roth he found edifying about the Jewish American experience. Self-hatred? The transcendent nature of the handjob? Prostate cancer? (I'd seriously considering supporting him if he dilated at length on any of these promising topics.)  As for Uris, how many discriminating yes-we-canners just threw in the towel in Hyde Park upon hearing the author of Exodus mentioned as a literary mentor? Elitist, heal thyself.

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