Maureen Dowd is perplexed:  How can Barack Obama, who grew up with a poor, single mother, keep appearing to be the black John Kerry, an effete Ivy Leaguer, out of touch with the ordinary voter? In her mind, it’s all the problem of a low class black kid have overlearned his lesson when he was forced (poor thing) to move amongst the wealthy white:

It must be hard for Obama, having applied all his energy over the years to rising above the rough spots in his background, making whites comfortable with him, striving to become the sophisticated, silky political star who looks supremely comfortable in a tux. Now he must go into reverse and stoop to conquer with cornball photo ops.

I think Dowd is barking up the wrong tree.  It’s not about money.  It’s about class.  Obama’s mother may have opted for poverty, but that’s not how she was raised.  She came from what appears to be a solid working-class family, and was a college grad.  Her husband, Barack’s father, may have been a Communist, but he was widely traveled, well-educated and apparently extremely bright.  In other words, these two were the new intelligentsia of the 1950s/1960s.  That’s a class thing.  The fact that Mom was a nutcase who drifted into marital and economic insecurity doesn’t change the patina of style that her solid background, augmented by a middle class education, gave her.

I can say all this with a certain amount of confidence.  My father was a truly dreadful breadwinner, so we were always living on a very thin financial margin.  I didn’t lose my jackets or complain when my shoes got tight, because I knew that, absent a hand-out from my grandmother, I wasn’t in line for new shoes or jackets.  We struggled.  BUT….

My Mom’s background was incredibly upper class.  On her father’s side, they were minor aristocracy, a benefit of his ancestors having been Hungarian court Jews.  On her mother’s side, she was descended from a wealthy Hanseatic trading family, and her grandfather was a wealthy banker.  Whatever her parents lacked in money (the declining fortunes of WWI, the Depression and WWII), they more than made up for in oodles of class.  I grew up knowing that I could dine comfortably with the queen, even if I couldn’t afford a dress for the ball.  I too am utterly lacking in beer-drinking finesse.

Obama and his parents may not have had the rarified upbringing my mother did, but he did not grow up wallowing in either Southern Black Jim Crow poverty, or Northern Black Detroit or Watts poverty, both concepts beloved of liberals when they think about American blacks.  Instead, he grew up in the middle to working class, the child and step child of intellectual elites.  He then compounded that class-ist sin by going to only the finest schools.  He comes by his elitism honestly, and it has nothing to do with money, the lack of money, or his having run to or escaped from his African-American genetic legacy.

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  • Zhombre

    If you start from the assumption that race, class and gender, the trinity of the left, are immutable categories, and that upward mobility or any kind of fluidity is not truly possible in American society, then it’s anomalous that Obama could be an Ivy League elitist. If one disavows that trinity, and smashes its icons (in the form of statistics about black children in single parent homes or images of what a male black American is supposed to be), and believes that individual circumstances, effort, ability, character and opportunity determine one’s place in society, then Obama isn’t so hard to understand at all. In most traditional or tribal cultures, after all, descent is matrilineal; you are what your mother was. Obama’s mama was white, middle-class, well-educated, an academic, liberal if not a fellow traveler in her political and social views.

  • Gringo

    From what I have learned of Obama, he has never attended a publicly funded educational institution in the US. Kindergarten in the US? Don’t know. Hawaii: 5th -12th grade at an exclusive private school. Post secondary: Occidental, Columbia, Harvard: all private. This lack of exposure to public schools may have had an effect on his ineffectual chairing of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge . Here is the summary of the “Chicago Annenberg Challenge Experience”, (271 page .pdf) (I apologize in advance for any mistakes in my typed transcription.)

    “It highlighted the period between 1996-97 through 2000-2001. Results suggest that among the schools the Challenge supported, the Challenge had little impact on school improvement and student outcomes, with no statistically significant differences between Annenberg and non-Annenberg schools in rates of achievement gain, student behavior, student self-sufficiency, and social competence. ”

    If Obama had some direct public school experience, he might have been better able to evaluate the potential effectiveness of the pie-in-the-sky proposals coming from the ed school types soliciting funds from the $50 million Annenberg Challenge. Obama chaired a project that handed out $50 million in grant money for improvement in Chicago schools, and the $50 million had no result. That doesn’t say much about Obama’s abilities as an executive. It also stereotypes the stereotype of liberal solutions for social problems: throw some money at it.
    One can see why Obama has apparently not been inclined to volunteer to gush about his experience with the Annenberg Challenge. His ineffectiveness in chairing the Annenberg Challenge , coupled with the Annenberg Challenge’s association with Bill Ayers, inform us why he has been less than forthcoming about this matter and others.

  • Danny Lemieux

    “Elitism” is an attitude. Nothing more, nothing less. It doesn’t matter where Barack and Michelle caught the virus, it only matters that they are infected.

  • Ymarsakar

    There’s no title for this post?

  • Mahlon

    Well-said, Danny. A snob by any other name . . .. It also matters that the two of them wish to spread the disease. (And just to carry the metaphor a little further . . .) Unfortunately, too few of the U.S. population has received a sufficient inoculation – real education. Not the drivel bestowed by public schools, but the kind a person grants to herself through reading, observation, synthesis and analysis.

  • Thomas

    “You’re the worst kind of sob. You’re an intellectual snob.”

    — Katherine Hepburn, Philadelphia Story

    Whatever Obama is, he certainly behaves in this manner. It seems he’s constantly belittling someone else’s intelligence if he disagrees with him (note his Jay-Z impersonation after being trounced in the recent debate with Clinton).

    But of course, Obama is elitist. He attended the same grade school as the Hawaiian Royal Family. He graduated from Harvard. He’s making beau coup bucks with an autobiography when he was clearly a man of no accomplishments. He’s Mister Ivy League, and the fact that his skin is black doesn’t negate that.

    His stances and the way in which he approaches any criticism of any sort is reminiscent of the Liberal Arts elitists at my old college. Facts don’t move them much but we articulation and intonation does. You have to have th right opinions to be heard at all. Or else you’ll be banished into the gloom in the category of “one of those idiots” who disagrees with them. Ah, those college years…

    In any case, this is a hurdle Obama still hasn’t gotten over. What little we know of him (since he has such a fully empty repertoire of accomplishments) has shown him to be, thus far, a cool, collected, detached, cerebral elitist who bandies about in bad company.

    If this is sufficient to be President, whell!, I know a couple of Joe’s up for th job!

  • Danny Lemieux

    Wasn’t it William F. Buckley who remarked that he would rather be ruled by the first 100 names in the phone book than anybody on the Harvard faculty?

  • Bookworm


    Even if it wasn’t Buckley, (a) it still sounds like something he would have said and (b) it sounds like something with which I agree.

  • Mike Devx

    This post – somewhat far down the list – is the best post in which i can place my CDS (Clinton Derangement Syndrome) rant, in this late May 6 evening (or early May 7 morning).

    And so I shall do so, in great celebratory ululations!

    The gas tax holiday is pure pandering. Curse John McCain for giving the witch her opening. But… but…

    But then she decided to take on OPEC! “I SHALL CRUSH OPEC!!!” If ever the peasant Nikita Khrushcgev was reanimated, it was at that shoe-pounding, populist, communist moment. And to her so-very just desserts the evil Hillary Clinton shall now retire to dine! I hope that shoe in her mouth tastes oh so very divine!

    But it is not her fault. She is merely the Evita Peron to the monstrous, thoroughly evil Juan Peron. And he was the monstrous evil, as Bill Clinton was the monstrous corruption of evil that stained the Democrat Party far, far worse than Tom Delay could ever stain the Repubs!

    Twas Bill who sold America out! Primarily to the Chinese and to Dubai. And, to a lesser degree, so many others. In his view of a multi-national world to which Eva Peron could not disagree, he sold our country out to his highest bidder and she, like Evita, simply went along. Once the deal in blood is sealed with the Chinese and with Dubai, could Evita repudiate their beloved Juan Peron’s deals? Scarcely, scarcely… especially not to the shadow Bill Clinton Former-President funds — and she could then be President???

    So, my CDS (Clinton Derangement Syndrome) campaign now comes to an end. The Roman Empire died of corruption. And our ascendancy may yet wither and die due to corruption.

    But Clinton – Hillary that is- was ready to go on Day One. That means her Corruption Machine was ready to go on Day One. And it is now dead. DEAD DEAD DEAD. Thank God for America and for all that is just and worthy.

    A new hope dawns. Can we seize it?