Thursday, September 09, 2004

In Defence of Intellectual Snobery

President Thomas Jefferson spoke three languages and read five, including Greek and Latin. His private library, the largest in the Thirteen Colonies, became the original collection for the Library of Congress1. President James Garfield was a professor of Classical Languages. It is rumored he could write Greek with one hand while at the same time, write in Latin with the other. President Theodore Roosevelt was a Conservationist and War Hero and is considered one of the greatest orators of the early 20th century. President Woodrow Wilson taught at three colleges, including Princeton, his Alma Mater. He was a major advocate of University Education and spent a great deal of his presidency promoting education and literacy.

The majority of our Presidents have been not just economic elite, but Intellectuals as well. The ones who weren't rich were consumed with public service2. All this changed in 1961 when the first made for TV president took Office, John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was neither very intellectual, nor overly consumed with the Public good. He did start the Peace Corp, but compared to predecessors like Wilson, he is small potatoes, only remembered today for being tragically killed while in office. Had Kennedy not been assassinated, it's likely he would be remembered primarily for getting us into Vietnam, a fact that would have more than overshadowed his only other noble achievement: sleeping with Marilyn Monroe.

The advent of the Made for TV President, who is elected based on his likeability instead of his ability, has been the major problem of our Presidential Elections for the past fifty years. In that time, we have gone from the competent leadership of Kennedy, to the ineptitude of Johnson, the flagrant chicanery of Nixon, and the shadowy vacuousness of Reagan and Bush Sr. to the downright contemptible imbecility, corruption and degradation of Bush Jr. Not even the poor befuddled Jimmy Carter or the charm of Clinton can make up for the fact that We The People have, for the last fifty years, placed our worst in office instead of our best. We've substituted substance and leadership for the shallow prepackaged images of a PR campaign. Our presidents lack not just substance but intelligence (except Clinton and Carter, who, for all their personal faults, at least tried to follow the Jeffersonian ideal of the Thoughtful President). Jesse at Pandagon put it nicely:

In America, the goal is that anyone should have the opportunity to become a doctor when they grow up. That doesn't mean that you get to take advantage of that promise when you're 32 and you failed high school biology. You may be a nice person, be culturally in tune with a vast swath of the American population, but real life isn't a Disney movie. No matter the populist affinity we might feel for a fictionalized narrative of an "average person" shunted to the presidency, it is not a job that requires an "average person". It requires an exceptional one, or at least the most exceptional one we can reasonably come up with. I don't want the president to be an average person. I don't care what a president eats, what he watches on TV, what his favorite band is. His or her life should be almost nothing like mine if they're doing their job correctly.

Like Jesse, I want the President to be smarter than me. I don't care if he's a nice guy. He could be a total dick for all I care. I just want him to be well read, capable of grasping nuance and changing his mind in light of newly discovered facts. I don't want some fervent jackass who barely can grasp even one language - his native tongue at that, and refuses to change his mind ever, about anything, even and especially when contrary facts are handed to him daily.

I don't think John Kerry is the uber intellectual the Right makes him out to be. But he is a smarter man than George Bush and that's a start.
1. He also developed his own cataloguing system which laid the foundation for the LOC system used today.

2. Except Grant, who was a cheat and a liar, as well as a warmonger. In the light of History, we see whose shadow George W. Bush stands in and it isn't Reagan's.


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