The most intelligent President … since when?

Here’s Malcolm reading a Timothy Egan essay for the New York Times.

If you’ve read it, you’re already ahead of our old boy.

Egan manages to skewer Mitt Romney (“a corporate tool”) and Newt Gingrich (“an influence peddler, a man who epitomizes what’s wrong with Washington”) on his way to considering President Obama’s speech on Tuesday at Osawatomie, Kansas. The essential significance of this speech was its location:

the small town where Theodore Roosevelt [in 1910] laid out an agenda for advancing American civilization through the 20th century…

And though Obama gave a good speech, one that framed the coming campaign as a “make or break moment for the middle class,” he is no Teddy Roosevelt. Nor, for that matter, is the Republican party of today anything close to the one that T.R. led through nearly two terms.

In a century’s time, the two parties have switched roles. Roosevelt, with his plea for an income tax, child labor laws, health care and conservation, his call for worker protections, control of corporate abuse, and “a square deal for the poor man,” would be booed out of the room of any Republican gathering today.

Egan, apart from the “then and now” paradoxes, is positing that:

Obama showed only the timidity of modern political discourse. Roosevelt’s speech was a manifesto; most of his ideas eventually became part of American life. Obama’s Osawatomie oration was a rear-guard action, defensive of a governing philosophy under fresh fire.

All of which is valid.

Yet, let us think on.

Obama is something exotic: an intelligent — make that “highly intelligent”, even (shudder, shudder) “intellectual” — person to made it to the summit of US politics:

  • The first Bush was “bright”;
  • so, by a very different measure, was Jimmy Carter.
  • Clinton had mental suppleness and subtlety, even if he lacked profundity.
  • Eisenhower (born in Texas, grew up and identified with Abilene,Kansas), whom Obama rightly tagged, was no slouch. And had steel.
  • Harry Truman, whose first political experience was as a page at the 1900 Democratic Convention in — yes — Kansas City, was denied by family circumstances the education he deserved — as a result he became one of the two greatest US Presidents of the 20th Century, rather than merely president of some country college: the world is better for it.
  • Back beyond that Woodrow Wilson – Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, lecturer at Cornell, Bryn Mawr and Wesleyan, on his way to being professor and then president at Princeton – has to be the most intellectual President, possibly ever. And so the nearest measure to Obama.

One has to feel that, on a good evening, the intimate supper table at the Obama household ought to come close to an academic seminar: two scintillating and matched intellects striking sparks off each other. One hopes so. And that would be something unprecedented in US political history.

A second term?

Egan’s piece is entitled The Rough Rider and the Professor, with just that proper capitalisation; and it’s all about the modesties of Obama’s ambition, especially in comparison with Teddy Roosevelt’s:

Roosevelt, who was born to Manhattan wealth but could be at his most passionate on behalf of the 99 percenters of a century ago, also spoke for about an hour in Osawatomie, stemwinding his way through what became known as the New Nationalism speech. It’s worth remembering that he was no longer president at the time, but was mulling a challenge to his chosen successor, the malleable William Howard Taft. Ultimately, when he couldn’t wrest the nomination from Taft, Roosevelt ran on the Progressive Party ticket. The split of the 1912 vote ensured the election of a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.

And was decisive in generating the nature of the two-party system that persists (albeit inverted) to this day.

Once upon a time there were queries why Teddy had his place at Mount Rushmore. Gutzon Borglum stated:

The purpose of the memorial is to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

That suggests Teddy Roosevelt, a singularly divisive figure in life, represents “unification”. If so, … hmmm.

Yet, especially in recent years, historians —  Edmund Morris, par excellence — have found Teddy Roosvelt increasingly of interest, and equally of merit. Morris encapsulated the essence of Teddy in four sentences, and three paragraphs  (though this is Time Magazine sub-editing):

They don’t hold White House lunches the way they used to at the beginning of the century. On Jan. 1, 1907, for example, the guest list was as follows: a Nobel prizewinner, a physical culturalist, a naval historian, a biographer, an essayist, a paleontologist, a taxidermist, an ornithologist, a field naturalist, a conservationist, a big-game hunter, an editor, a critic, a ranchman, an orator, a country squire, a civil service reformer, a socialite, a patron of the arts, a colonel of the cavalry, a former Governor of New York, the ranking expert on big-game mammals in North America and the President of the U.S.

All these men were named Theodore Roosevelt.

In his protean variety, his febrile energy (which could have come from his lifelong habit of popping nitroglycerin pills for a dicey heart), his incessant self-celebration and his absolute refusal to believe there was anything finer than to be born an American, unless to die as one in some glorious battle for the flag, the great “Teddy” was as representative of 20th century dynamism as Abraham Lincoln had been of 19th century union and George Washington of 18th century independence.

21st Century foxiness

Similarly, Obama is setting the context for presidencies of the present century.

And, the US electorate willing, by November of next year, Obama will be free — nay, obliged — to apply it. Anything else will put the rest of the world into infarctions. He has one great advantage, which Timothy Egan nicely puts:

Still, if the president can frame the election in the people-versus-the-powerful mode articulated by Roosevelt, he will win in 2012…

“That’s not politics,” Obama said. “That’s just math.” He was referring to why the country could not make investments in its future without the rich paying more in taxes. But his words also apply to the electoral calculation – a play for a majority that feels it is being left behind in an insider’s game.

So while there were no policy specifics in Obama’s address, what we saw in the Kansas high school gym was the clearest vision yet of the Democratic strategy for 2012. “This isn’t just another political debate,” Obama said, in introducing his theme of class fairness. “This is the defining issue of our time.”

Entering his second term, Obama will be in his “last job”. Even at the end of that stint he will be only in his mid-50s. Between November 2012 and January 2017 he has to define and deliver his “legacy”. If it genuinely is one of “class fairness” that would be truly remarkable, truly laudable — even, especially in US terms — revolutionary, truly Rooseveltian.

Then he can “retire” to be a college president, should he wish.


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Filed under History, Law, New York Times, Presidential Election, social class, underclass, US Elections, US politics

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