by Victor Davis Hanson
Barack Obama is a myth, our modern version of Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. What we were told is true, never had much basis in fact — a fact now increasingly clear as hype gives way to reality.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss, on no evidence, once proclaimed Obama “probably the smartest guy ever to become president.” When he thus summed up liberal consensus, was he perhaps referring to academic achievement? Soaring SAT scores? Seminal publications? IQ scores known only to a small Ivy League cloister? Political wizardry?
Who was this Churchillian president so much smarter than the Renaissance man Thomas Jefferson, more astute than a John Adams or James Madison, with more insight than a Lincoln, brighter still than the polymath Teddy Roosevelt, more studious than the bookish Woodrow Wilson, better read than the autodidact Harry Truman?
Consider. Did Obama achieve a B+ average at Columbia? Who knows? (Who will ever know?) But even today’s inflated version of yesteryear’s gentleman Cs would not normally warrant admission to Harvard Law. And once there, did the Law Review editor publish at least one seminal article? Why not?
I ask not because I particularly care about the GPAs or certificates of the president, but only because I am searching for a shred of evidence to substantiate this image of singular intellectual power and known erudition. For now, I don’t see any difference between Bush’s Yale/Harvard MBA record and Obama’s Columbia/Harvard Law record — except Bush, in self-deprecation, laughed at his quite public C+/B- accomplishments that he implied were in line with his occasional gaffes, while Obama has quarantined his transcripts and relied on the media to assert that his own versions of “nucular” moments were not moments of embarrassment at all.
At Chicago, did lecturer Obama write a path-breaking legal article or a book on jurisprudence that warranted the rare tenure offer to a part-time lecturer? (Has that offer ever been extended to others of like stature?) In the Illinois legislature or US Senate, was Obama known as a deeply learned man of the Patrick Moynihan variety? Whether as an undergraduate, law student, lawyer, professor, legislator or senator, Obama was given numerous opportunities to reveal his intellectual weight. Did he ever really? On what basis did Harvard Law Dean Elena Kagan regret that Obama could not be lured to a top billet at Harvard?
That his brilliance is a myth was not just revealed by the weekly lapses (whether phonetic [corpse-man], or cultural [Austria/Germany, the United Kingdom/England, Memorial Day/Veterans Day] or inane [57 states]), but in matters of common sense and basic history. The error-ridden Cairo speech was foolish; the serial appeasement of Iran revealed an ignorance of human nature; a two-minute glance at an etiquette book would have nixed the bowing or the cheap gifts to the UK.
In short, the myth of Obama’s brilliance was based on his teleprompted eloquence, the sort of fable that says we should listen to a clueless Sean Penn or Matt Damon on politics because they can sometimes act well. Read Plato’sIon on the difference between gifted rhapsody and wisdom — and Socrates’ warning about easily conflating the two. It need not have been so. At any point in a long career, Obama the rhapsode could have shunned the easy way, stuck his head in a book, and earned rather than charmed those (for whom he had contempt) for his rewards. Clinton was a browser with a near photographic memory who had pretensions of deeply-read wonkery; but he nonetheless browsed. Obama seems never to have done that. He liked the vague idea of Obamacare, outsourced the details to the Democratic Congress, applied his Chicago protocols to getting it passed, and worried little what was actually in the bill. We were to think that the obsessions with the NBA, the NCAA final four, the golfing tics, etc., were all respites from exhausting labors of the mind rather than in fact the presidency respites from all the former.
Take away all the “no more red state/no more blue state,” “this is our moment” mish-mash and what is left to us? “Reaching across the aisle” sounded bipartisan, but it came from the most consistently partisan member of the US Senate. Most of the 2008 campaign was a frantic effort on the part of the media to explain away Bill Ayers, ACORN, the SEIU, Rev. Wright, Father Pfleger, the clingers speech, “get in their face,” and the revealing put downs of Hillary Clinton. But those were windows into a soul that soon opened even wider — with everything from limb-lopping doctors and polluting Republicans to stupidly acting police and “punish our enemies” nativists. The Special Olympics “joke,” the pig reference to Sarah Palin, the middle-finger nose-rub to Hillary — all that was a scratch of the thin shiny veneer into the hard plywood beneath.
The binding up our wounds myth had no basis in reality, but was constructed on the notion (to channel the racially condescending Harry Reid and Joe Biden) that a charismatic and young postracial rhetorician seemed so non-threatening. The logic was that Obama took a train from Springfield to DC; so did Lincoln; presto, both were like healers. The truth? The Obamites — Jarrett, Axelrod, Emanuel, etc. — were hard-core partisan dividers, who had a history of demonizing enemies, suing to eliminate opponents, and leaking divorce records, in addition to the usual Chicago campaign protocols.
If one were to collate the Obama record on race (from Eric Holder’s “my people” and “cowards” to Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” and Van Jones’s racist rants), it is the most polarizing in a generation. The Obama way is and always was to create horrific straw men: opponents of healthcare reform are greedy doctors who want to rip out your tonsils; opponents of tax increases jet off to Vegas to blow their children’s tuition money; skeptics of Solyndra-like disasters want to dirty the air; those against open borders wish to put alligators and moats in the Rio Grande as they round up children at ice cream parlors. There were ways of opposing Republicans without the demonization, but the demonization was useful when followed by the soaring, one-eyed Jack rhetoric about reaching out, working together, and avoiding the old politics of acrimony.
The notion that there was anything in Obama’s past or present temperament to suggest a political reformer was mythological to the core. Almost all his prior elections relied on a paradigm of attacking his opponents rather than defending his own record, from the races for the legislature to the US Senate. He shook down Wall Street as no one had before or since — and well after the September 2008 meltdown. He was the logical expression of the Chicago/Illinois system of Tony Rezko, Blago, and the Daleys, not its aberration — from the mundane of expanding his yard to melting down opponents by leaking sealed divorce records.
The more Obama badmouthed BP and Goldman Sachs, the more we knew he received record amounts of cash from both (were the bad “millionaires and billionaires” snickering that this was just part of the game?). He renounced liberal public financing of campaigns of over three decades duration, as only a liberal reformer might, and got away with it. Obama raised far more money than any candidate in history, and will go back to the same trough this time around. On a Monday the president will vilify Wall Street, on Tuesday host a $40,000-a-head dinner for those who apparently did not get his earlier message that at some point they had already made enough money and this was now surely not the time to profit — or did they get it all too well? Wait, you say, “They all do this!” Well, perhaps most at any rate; but most also spare us the messianic rhetoric and so do not win the additional charge of hypocrisy. Reforming the system is hard; reforming the reformers of the system impossible.
So when Obama speaks loudly about Wall Street criminality, we now snooze — only to awaken knowing Corzine’s missing $1 billion, or George Soros’s felony conviction in France, or Jeffrey Immelt’s no-tax gymnastics were not just never raised, but are exempted through the purchase of liberal penance, in the manner that John Kerry never really docked his gargantuan yacht in a less taxed state, or Timothy Geithner never really pocketed his FICA allowances.
As far as the vaunted promises to end the revolving door, lobbyists, and earmarks and usher in a new transparency, well, blah, blah, blah. Obama did not merely violate his proposed reforms, but excelled in the old politics as few others had. The career of a Peter Orszag or the crony machinations of the Solyndra executives attest well enough.
As far as medical transparency, I care only that my president seems healthy enough to get up in the morning for his grueling ordeal and can be spared the how part; but I do recognize that we have a history of disguising maladies (cf. Wilson’s incapacity, FDR’s last year, or JFK’s numerous prescription drugs), and that, in recent times at least, we have demanded a new transparency. Was that why the media harped on McCain’s melanoma, his age, and his injuries? So I thought we would get the now mandatory 24-hour-look at 500 pages of thirty years of Obama’s doctors visits, medications, vital signs, diseases, all the treatments that the watchdog media goes ape over — whether Tom Eagleton’s shock treatments or Mike Dukakis’s use of Advil or the Bush thyroid problem.
Instead, we got a tiny paragraph from Obama’s doctor assuring us that he’s healthy, and this from the most “transparent” president in history, in an age when the press is frenzied over a presidential Ambien prescription. To this day, I have no idea whether our president smokes, or ever did, or for how long and how much, or if he ever took a prescription drug, or if his blood pressure is perfect or under treatment. Again, I care only that he gets up in the morning — and that the de facto rules of disclosure that have applied to others apply to him.
We will never know much about Fast and Furious, and even less about Greengate. Obama — and this was clever rather than brilliant — gauged rightly that not only would liberals’ hysteria about ethics cease when he brought them to power, but in a strange way they would grin that one of their own had out-hustled the supposed right-wing hustlers. Or was it a sort of paleo-Marxist idea of using the corrupt system to end the supposedly corrupt system? Those who vacation at Vail, Martha’s Vineyard, or Costa del Sol are supposedly insidiously undermining the system that allows only the millionaire and billionaire few to do so?
This was the strangest chapter of the myth, the idea that Obama the Olympian was above the fray. He lobbied the Germans for an address at the Brandenburg Gate, settled for the Prussian Victory Column, and, as thanks, then skipped out as president on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — but managed to jet to Copenhagen to lobby for the Chicago Olympics.
There was never a peep that Obama’s present anti-terrorism protocols — Guantanamo, renditions, tribunals, Predators, the Patriot Act, preventative detention — came from George Bush. Much less did we hear that had Bush for a nanosecond ever listened to the demagoguery of then state legislator and later senator Obama, none of these tools would presently exist. How did what was superfluous, unconstitutional, and possibly illegal in 2008 become vital in 2011?
Ditto the Iraq War. We went in a blink from the surge that failed and made things worse and all troops must be out by March 2008 to Iraq was a shining example of American idealism and commitment. It was as if the touch-and-go, life-and-death gamble between February 2007 and January 2009 in Iraq never had existed. Bombing Libya was not warlike, and those who sued Bush on Iraq and Guantanamo now filed briefs to prove that we were not at war killing Libyan thugs. We hear only of reset; never that Obama has now simply abandoned all his “Bush-did-it” policies and is quietly going back to the Bush consensus on Russia, Iran, Syria, and the Middle East in general. We will not only never see Guantanamo closed or KSM tried in a civilian court, but never hear why not. Are we to applaud the hypocrisy as at least better than continued ignorance?
On the domestic front, we are forever frozen on September 15, 2008. There is never an Obama sentence that the Freddie/Fannie machinations (both agencies were routinely plundered for bonuses by ex-Clinton flunkies) gave a green light to Wall Street greed — much less that both empowered public recklessness either to flip houses or to buy a house without credit worthiness or any history of thrift. Did we ever hear that between the meltdown and the inauguration, there were four months of frantic stabilization that, by the time of Obama’s ascendancy, had ensured that the panic had largely passed? Instead, blowing $5 trillion in three years is to be forever the response to the ongoing and now multiyear Bush crash, all to justify a “never waste a crisis” reordering of society.
I could go on, but we know only that we know very little about Barack Obama, and what we do know is quite different from what is alleged. All presidents have mythographies, but they also have a record and auditors that can collate facts with fiction. In Obama’s case, we were never given all the facts and there were few in the press interested in finding them.
To quote Maxwell Scott in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
©2011 Victor Davis Hanson