The Alcove

Barack Obama and the Intellectual as President

Obama’s take on T.S. Eliot reminds liberal-intellectual types that the President is one of us. Has that been a good thing?

By Michael Tomasky

Tagged Barack Obama

One of the most fascinating little documents of the Obama era, at least for a certain subset of us, is out there now under dissection by Columbia University professor Edward Mendelson and The New York Review of Books. It’s nothing to do with ISIS or the election or gun policy. It’s a letter Obama wrote to a college girlfriend about T.S. Eliot, and it transported me back in time to the Barack Obama of 2008 in a way that nothing has in quite some time—although not, for reasons I’ll explain, quite as merrily as I’d have preferred.

The letter is pretty remarkable. Obama is describing to “Alex” his take on Eliot’s conservatism, which Obama in some ways finds appealing. I’m no Eliot exegete, but I know enough about Eliot’s conservative and even reactionary views to find this a little disturbing. What’s interesting, though, is Obama’s analysis of the basis of Eliot’s conservatism. In prose that toggles back and forth between the labored tones of the undergraduate and something considerably sharper than that, he writes:

Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.)

And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.

Mendelson interprets this better than I could. “Obama sees that Eliot’s conservatism differs from that of fascist sympathizers who want to impose a new political hierarchy on real-world disorder,” Mendelson writes. “Eliot’s conservatism is instead a tragic, fatalistic vision of a world that cannot be reformed in the way that liberalism hopes to reform it; it is a fallen world that can never repair itself, but needs to be redeemed.”

What’s interesting here to me is not so much Obama’s view of Eliot and what it tells us about his own world view; I hope, and think, that his views on these matters have changed in the last 30 years, although that line about his respecting a certain kind of conservatism rings true all these years later to anyone who read his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, in which he praised conservatism’s respect for tradition and its caution in defenestrating certain old things too heedlessly (this “certain kind of conservatism” that Obama respects is not the kind of conservatism we have in this country today, it should be noted).

Instead, the letter—which, it turns out, was originally unearthed by David Maraniss in 2012 for his Obama biography—is interesting because it reminds us, us liberal quasi-literary types, that we have a President who is one of us.

I recall even being elated when Obama, on his first presidential visit to Paris in June 2009, chose to take in the Centre Pompidou. A President going to an art museum!

Back in 2007 and 2008, this was apparent, and it was exciting. The topic that comes most quickly to mind here is the work Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian and philosopher who exerted a vast influence on the dominant realist and anti-communist tendency in mid-twentieth century liberal foreign policy. In certain interviews and contexts, where he knew it would flatter the interlocutor, Obama would drop references to Niebuhr, indicating a clear (although how detailed, who knows) familiarity with his work. I remember David Brooks, no liberal but kind of an Obama fan back then, writing words to the effect that he always expected politicians he interviewed to know more policy than he does, but until Obama, he’d never encountered one who was as comfortable or even more comfortable in the world of ideas.

As I say, I thought all this was quite exciting at the time. Remember, we were coming off eight years of George W. Bush. In retrospect I think liberals went too far in calling him dumb. But he was certainly, I think it’s fair to say, intellectually incurious. That incuriosity had consequences for the world. According to former ambassador Peter Galbraith, for example, in the run-up to the Iraq War, Bush didn’t even know the difference between Sunni and Shia. So the idea that we were getting a President who did know these things, and who thought more or less like we thought, well, that was pretty cool.

I recall even being elated when Obama, on his first presidential visit to Paris in June 2009, chose to take in the Centre Pompidou. A President going to an art museum! And not just any art museum—the kind of ugly one, with the all the difficult, modern, abstract stuff! Any President could go have a gander at the Mona Lisa, or take in all those pretty Manets and Renoirs at the Musee d’Orsay. But here was Obama contemplating a Kandinsky. This was my kind of President.

Well, seven years later, and here’s where the not-so-merry part comes in, we can now take stock of how much it has mattered to have a President who could parse the conservatism of Eliot versus Pound and discuss Niebuhr and appreciate a Kandinsky. Turns out to be not all that relevant to the job. Plain old horse sense probably matters a lot more, and a skill—and taste—for cajolery. I know a lot of people could have told me that at the time, but what can I tell you, we believe what we want to believe.

But I’m not ready to throw in the towel completely on the idea of Presidents having an intellectual side to them. I’d rather have a President who was a reader as a young person than not. It’s bound to come in handy. Harry Truman had no college degree but among Presidents was one of the great autodidacts of all time. One of the areas in which he had read extensively, weirdly enough, was the history of the countries and regions of central Asia. His level of knowledge of the cultures around the Urals blew Dean Acheson (Groton, Yale) out of his shoes. And it must have come in handy when he was dealing with old Uncle Joe. I’ve tempered the past enthusiasms, but I’d still rather have a President who’s spent a fair amount of time with his or her nose buried in a book.

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Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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