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Ed Driscoll

The Commander in Chief of MSNBC

October 31st, 2010 - 11:00 pm

So who’s left? Basically Media Matters, MSNBC, Comedy Central, the builders of the Ground Zero mosque, and academia, it seems. While I can understand the president wanting to circle the wagons, it’s awfully difficult to rally the country from inside the studios of MSNBC, no matter how robust their switchboard system.

In her latest op-ed, Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post takes time in between gushing over the president to finally figure out another element of what ails him as a leader:

Stewart had just asked Obama how he could square his campaign mantra of “change” with hiring economic advisers such as Larry Summers, who looks the same as those who had served in previous administrations. In response, Obama said that Summers had done a “heck of a job.”

Whereupon, Stewart said, “You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.”

Everyone got the joke. George W. Bush used the same words to commend Michael “Brownie” Brown after his disastrous performance as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency following Hurricane Katrina. Translation: You’re fired.

Everyone got the joke, that is, except for Obama. He got it eventually, after seeing the “oops” expression on Stewart’s face, but he couldn’t take the joke. There’s a world of difference.

Instead of laughing at himself, he turned to the audience – a beat too late – and said, “Pun intended.”

No, it wasn’t. Anyone watching could see that. He slipped. Obama is a nice guy; he was trying to say something nice about Summers, and “heck of a job” just tumbled out. No big deal. We get it. Stuff happens. But Obama couldn’t roll with the gut punch.

In that, among other moments, Obama revealed his fatal flaw. He has no sense of humor. He might be able to laugh at a joke. He can even tell one, as he demonstrated at the last White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Whoever wrote that script should send his resume to Comedy Central. Oh, wait, some of the writers do work at Comedy Central.

No, what Obama revealed was that he has no sense of humor about himself. This is utterly huge.

It is entirely appropriate that the president take his job seriously. And no one would urge Obama (or anyone else) to try to be funny with Jon Stewart. He’s the funny guy, and producers doubtless remind guests of that fact. A good guest on “The Daily Show” is expected to be the straight man so that the comedian has some place to go with the material. I’m sure there’s a Rolodex of “bad guests” who tried to out-funny the comedian.

But it is imperative that leaders not take themselves too seriously. What should Obama have done instead? How about saying: “I can’t believe I just said that”? Or, “Oy!”? Whatever. Anything to signal to the audience that, “Oh, well, I’m human.”

But it’s awfully hard to have a sense of humor when you’re so disdainful of a large swatch of the nation you govern. (How bad is it? This bad.) You risk appearing not as an elected official, but as a stiff clichéd parody university professor, all but looking down at the voters from the bridge of your pince-nez. Or as James Taranto writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Barack Obama is a pragmatist, James Kloppenberg tells the New York Times. No, he doesn’t mean Obama is practical-minded; no one thinks that anymore. In fact, Kloppenberg, a Harvard historian, disparages the “vulgar pragmatism” of Bill Clinton while praising Obama’s “philosophical pragmatism”:

It is a philosophy that grew up after Darwin published his theory of evolution and the Civil War reached its bloody end. More and more people were coming to believe that chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence.

Pragmatism maintains that people are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live; it embraces open-minded experimentation and continuing debate. “It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers,” Mr. Kloppenberg said.

Kloppenberg has a new book coming out, “Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes and the American Political Tradition.” According to the Times, Kloppenberg “sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president,” a “true intellectual.” Such philosophers are a “rare breed”: the Adamses, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Wilson and now Obama.

“Imagine the Republicans driving the economy into a ditch,” the philosopher president said the other day. “And it’s a deep ditch. It’s a big ditch. And somehow they walked away from the accident, and we put on our boots and we rappelled down into the ditch–me and Jack and Sheldon and Jim and Patrick. We’ve been pushing, pushing, trying to get that car out of the ditch. And meanwhile, the Republicans are standing there, sipping on a Slurpee.” John Dewey had nothing on this guy!

If the president does not seem to be the intellectual heavyweight Kloppenberg makes him out to be, the Harvard historian has an explanation: Obama is a sort of secret-agent philosopher. “He would have had to deny every word,” Kloppenberg tells the Times, which helpfully explains that “intellectual” is “a word that is frequently considered an epithet among populists with a robust suspicion of Ivy League elites.”

When Sarah Palin called Obama a “professor,” some professors accused her of racism. What she really meant, they claimed, was “uppity.” Kloppenberg’s similar characterization, however, draws a quite different response:

Those who heard Mr. Kloppenberg present his argument at a conference on intellectual history at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center responded with prolonged applause. “The way he traced Obama’s intellectual influences was fascinating for us, given that Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University who helped organize the conference.

One assumes that Andrew Hartman is a serious scholar, although one doesn’t know for sure because one has never heard of him. Barack Obama, by contrast, is a scholarly dilettante, a professional politician who has moonlighted as a university instructor.

Exactly. Or as Michael Ledeen and PJ O’Rourke each independently dubbed him, a perpetual undergrad — and remarkably politically correct — student.

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