One recalls W. B. Yeats’s poem “Long-Legged Fly,” which celebrates, even sacralizes, the act of quiet contemplation by great men, as seen in the first of its three stanzas:
That civilisation may not sink,
Its great battle lost,
Quiet the dog, tether the pony
To a distant post;
Our master Caesar is in the tent
Where the maps are spread,
His eyes fixed upon nothing,
A hand upon his head.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.
A great man’s thought, Yeats reminds us, can lead to exploits that save the world from disaster or alter it in monumental ways. The poem attends to the thought, not the action — but the point is that the action is the reason for the thought; without the follow-through, the thought itself is ultimately meaningless. Obama’s focus, like the poem’s, is on the thought, not the action to come; yet for him, as opposed to Yeats, the thought is an end unto itself, and action need not be a part of the picture at all. It is no surprise that Obama is so indecisive about so many things, any more than it is a surprise that during all his years as a teacher of law he famously never published a single law review article: to make an executive decision about an issue, or to put into print one’s opinion about a legal question, is to mark an end to thought about that topic. Obama may have spoken at thousands of lecterns about the “change,” whatever it was supposed to be, that he would bring to America; but even as he was preaching about action, he wasn’t itching (in the way that, say, Reagan or Clinton was) to get to work changing America, but was, quite simply, savoring his own rhetoric — enjoying the narcissistic conceit of his own mind moving in silence.
It’s thanks to this flagrantly conspicuous deliberativeness, this relentless penchant for philosophical posturing, that many people who once despised Hillary Clinton now recognize her, in comparison with Obama, not only as someone who is capable of being a good and solid — but unpretentious — thinker but also as someone who understands not just the politics of campaigning but the politics of governing, which means that she knows that thought itself is not enough, that taking a stand matters, and that it is action that defines character.
Of course, the topper here is that all of Obama’s deep thinking is ultimately bogus. It’s as if he’s posing for Rodin, elbow on knee, chin on fist — all the while staring in a mirror, pleased by what he sees. Consider for a moment this sentence about Obama’s views on gay marriage, also from the AP’s DOMA story: “He said his feelings on the issue continue to evolve but he still believes in allowing strong civil unions.” Now, what person who holds a strong and sincere opinion about anything describes that opinion as “evolving”? One’s take on this or that issue may change over time, to be sure, but only in retrospect will one view it as having “evolved”; for a person who still supposedly has a firm belief in any given proposition, it’s nothing less than perverse to say that that belief is “evolving.”
Yes, this sentence could be interpreted as a cynical politician’s attempt to communicate to gay-marriage supporters that if they stick with him, he’ll eventually declare himself to be on their side once it becomes politically safe to do so. But it feels weirder than that. It feels almost as if Obama is imagining himself standing outside of his own thought processes, contemplating himself contemplating — the implication being that he’s so fine an observer of his own mental processes that he’s able to assure us that the path of reflection along which he’s making his effortful way will indeed, in the fullness of time, lead him to support gay marriage.
In any case, Obama’s direction of the spotlight upon his own supposedly “evolving” philosophy about gay marriage places his personal thought processes at the center of things in a way that comes off as distinctively obnoxious and self-regarding — and just plain insulting to American citizens whose lives are touched by the issue in question in a way that Obama’s isn’t. For another politician to respond to gay marriage with a flat, firm, decisive “no” seems to me less condescending toward gay couples than this obnoxious, self-regarding business about Obama’s “evolving” views. Again, this isn’t just about gay marriage: this one remark about Obama’s “evolving” views illuminates the way he thinks about the way he thinks. And what one comes away with is the clear impression that, in his view, there’s nothing odd or inappropriate about demanding that hundreds of thousands of American citizens wait patiently, hold their collective breath, and keep their lives on hold while Obama’s mind performs its exquisite work — moving, like the very mind of Caesar in his tent, in perfect and magnificent silence.