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Presidents who are literature buffs are perfectly willing to order drone strikes.

Teju Cole’s befuddlement is perfectly precious:

There was a feeling during the years of George W. Bush’s Presidency that his gracelessness as well as his appetite for war were linked to his impatience with complexity. He acted “from the gut,” and was economical with the truth until it disappeared. Under his command, the United States launched a needless and unjust war in Iraq that resulted in terrible loss of life; at the same time, an unknown number of people were confined in secret prisons and tortured. That Bush was anti-intellectual, and often guilty of malapropisms and mispronunciations (“nucular”), formed part of the liberal aversion to him: he didn’t know much about the wider world, and did not much care to learn.

His successor couldn’t have been more different. Barack Obama is an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world. He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history—as befits a former law professor—and he has shown time and again a surprising interest in contemporary fiction. The books a President buys might be as influenced by political calculation as his “enjoyment” of lunch at a small town diner or a round of skeet shooting. Nevertheless, a man who names among his favorite books Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” Robinson’s “Gilead,” and Melville’s “Moby Dick” is playing the game pretty seriously. His own feel for language in his two books, his praise for authors as various as Philip Roth and Ward Just, as well as the circumstantial evidence of the books he’s been seen holding (the “Collected Poems” of Derek Walcott, most strikingly), add up to a picture of a man for whom an imaginative engagement with literature is inseparable from life. It thrilled me, when he was elected, to think of the President’s nightstand looking rather similar to mine. We had, once again, a reader in chief, a man in the line of Jefferson and Lincoln.

[…]

How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.

Or, perhaps, presidents who are literature buffs are also perfectly willing to launch drone strikes because, you know, they like looking tough and they think that looking tough helps them get re-elected.

Incidentally, now that it has begun to dawn on Teju Cole that he might have been wrong about Barack Obama, do you think that perhaps he might reconsider his appraisal of George W. Bush?

Me neither. Self-awareness dawns ever so slowly. Walt Harrington seems to have gotten George W. Bush a lot better. And by the way, Bush reads lots of books.

  1. Nick Stuart

    Who the heck is Teju Cole? [rhetorical question. Could look him up of course but is there a reason why bother?]

  2. Albert Arthur

    Remember when Sir Paul said it was nice to have someone in the White House again who knew how to read?  All part of the Liberal insistence that Conservatives are stupid.

  3. DrewInWisconsin

    I hate to fisk, but . . .

    Barack Obama is an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world. He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history—as befits a former law professor . . .

    Is there any proof of the above other than the writer’s assertion? Seems to me that the man who lives in the White House is quite lacking in his knowledge of history (and similarly lacking in his knowledge of the law). 

    and he has shown time and again a surprising interest in contemporary fiction.

    I assume here he’s talking about mass market romances you can pick up at the grocery store.

    The books a President buys might be as influenced by political calculation as his “enjoyment” of lunch at a small town diner or a round of skeet shooting.

    And probably as authentic as his skeet shooting, too.

    Nevertheless, a man who names among his favorite books Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” Robinson’s “Gilead,” and Melville’s “Moby Dick” is playing the game pretty seriously.

    Yes, and the game is called “Let’s rattle off a bunch of books that make me sound smart, but which I haven’t actually read.”

  4. flownover

    What a steaming puddle of facile foam-flecked fandom.

  5. Group Captain Mandrake

    So he likes Philip Roth, eh?  Well Mr. Obama, tell me where Alex Portnoy first encounters “The Monkey”.

  6. wmartin
    Group Captain Mandrake: So he likes Philip Roth, eh?  Well Mr. Obama, tell me where Alex Portnoy first encounters “The Monkey”. · 1 minute ago

    Hhhmmm… I love Roth but I don’t know that off the top of my head. Was it an opening of an art gallery? I do know that she was a very “stupid monkey.”

  7. tabula rasa

    I too love Gilead (and I’ve actually read it).  It’s message is profoundly conservative.  I’ve read Moby Dick too:  as best I recall it gives little guidance on war and international relations.

    On the other hand, I don’t like either Roth’s or Morrison’s novels (I suppose this makes me an anti-Semite and a racist).  Oddly, I love Joseph Epstein and Tom Sowell and Shelby Steele.

    What precisely is Teju Cole’s point other than that liberals are sensitive, smart people and conservatives are troglodytes?   

  8. flownover

    Gosh, I just realized that the article was in the New Yorker, having seen snippets of it all over today, none of which identified this treasure chest of treacle.

    Certainly do miss the old New Yorker . I think I cancelled my subscription about the 2nd year of Bush’s term , when they let Rik Hertzberg out of his playpen.

  9. Group Captain Mandrake
    wmartin

    Group Captain Mandrake: So he likes Philip Roth, eh?  Well Mr. Obama, tell me where Alex Portnoy first encounters “The Monkey”. · 1 minute ago

    Hhhmmm… I love Roth but I don’t know that off the top of my head. Was it an opening of an art gallery? I do know that she was a very “stupid monkey.” · 23 minutes ago

    I think it was outdoors on Lexington Avenue in the low 50s.  I’ll have to check.  Having said that, I’m likely to walk past the very spot on my way home tonight.  Unfortunately there’s no plaque to commemorate the event.

     I just checked.  Midnight on the corner of 52nd street and Lex.  But which corner?

  10. Angmoh Gao

    “He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history—as befits a former law professor—”

    I was going to ask whether the great BO really was a professor since - but a quick Wiki reveals that the term is used very differently in the States to elsewhere where it designates a more august academic.

  11. Kermadec

    Surprising that a well-read chap like Mr Cole would make the mistake of judging someone’s literary credentials by how smoothly they talk. Sometimes, (often?) the relation is directly inverse, as in the case of Vladimir Nabokov:

    “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.”

  12. Sandy

    Lord, spare us another president “with a cosmopolitan sense of the world,” and especially spare us a law professor whose aim is to overthrow the Constitution, and grant us a man of good character.  If he happens to read books I won’t hold that against him.

  13. david foster

    The argument that the article is making, if it can be dignified with that term, seems to be:

    *reading literature and philosophy creates empathy

    *people with empathy don’t do bad things

    *Ordering military actions like drone strikes is a bad thing

    Churchill, I feel certain, was far better-read than Obama. And the actions by RAF bomber command he ordered killed more people in one typical evening than all the drone strikes Obama has ever ordered. It is probably beyond the mental range of this author to consider that Churchill’s actions might have been motivated by the *presence* of empathy…for the current and future victims of Naziism…than its absence.

    There are also people better-read than Obama who did undeniably very bad things. Heiddeger, for instance, was surely deeply read…he was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazi Party.

  14. Scott R

    It was in the West’s great works of literature that President Obama learned that ”Wanted, dead or alive!” is the phrasing of a simple-minded, provincial cowboy.

    “Wanted, dead!” — now that’s the worldly, subtle thinking of a man of learning, of literature, of nuance.  

  15. Wylee Coyote

    It thrilled me, when he was elected, to think of the President’s nightstand looking rather similar to mine.

    And thus, Mr. Cole has unwittingly stumbled on the brass-tacks basis of Obama’s appeal.

  16. Larry3435

    “Barack Obama is an elegant and literate man with a cosmopolitan sense of the world. He is widely read in philosophy, literature, and history—as befits a former law professor—and he has shown time and again a surprising interest in contemporary fiction.”

    In the days of Al Capone, it was the habit of Chicago mobsters and thugs to line their bookcases with unopened, leather-bound volumes of literature, to demonstrate their sophistication.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  On the other hand, “elegant”?  Seriously?

  17. iDad

    What a brilliant parody.

  18. wmartin
    Kermadec: Surprising that a well-read chap like Mr Cole would make the mistake of judging someone’s literary credentials by how smoothly they talk. Sometimes, (often?) the relation is directly inverse, as in the case of Vladimir Nabokov:

    “I think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child.” · 16 hours ago

    Yeah, but English was Nabokov’s third language.

  19. Oranjeman

    Am I the only one that is irritated when President Obama is referred to as a former law professor?  He was a lecturer at the University of Chicago specializing in the 14th Amendment (specifically § 1); I can’t say that he is not expert in this aspect of the Constitution but he has demonstrated, for all to see, that he is no expert on the Constitution in any general sense.  The man was totally unfamiliar with Lochner, a case many an actual tenured law professor would say is one of the 10 most important in our nation’s jurisprudential history.   As for being exceptionally intelligent, perhaps he is, I’m just waiting to see some evidence of that.  Something beyond a 3rd party’s insistence of it at any event. 

  20. Barbara Kidder
    tabula rasa: I too loveGilead(and I’ve actually read it).  It’s message is profoundly conservative.  I’ve read Moby Dick too:  as best I recall it gives little guidance on war and international relations.

    On the other hand, I don’t like either Roth’s or Morrison’s novels (I suppose this makes me an anti-Semite and a racist).  Oddly, I love Joseph Epstein and Tom Sowell and Shelby Steele.

    What precisely is Teju Cole’s point other than that liberals are sensitive, smart people and conservatives are troglodytes?    · 22 hours ago

    Edited 22 hours ago

    My guess is that what spurs him on (Mr. Cole, that is), is a bad case of intellectual snobbery;  the same strain that had infected Katie Couric, and was evident when she was interviewing Sarah Palin.

    Sometimes, there are outbreaks of it around here, but most people seem to have strong immune systems, thus they do not succumb.

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