Obama’s personality limned almost 200 years ago in a Jane Austen novel

Although I can’t track it down now, I vividly remember reading a New York Times story about Obama in which a colleague said that Obama had the knack, at meetings, of making everyone in the room think that he agreed with them, even if the meeting was divisive. That is, he mouthed banalities with such conviction that each person ascribed to them a meaning that wasn’t there, and took that meaning as an endorsement of his or her own point of view. It is a quality that makes people like one in the short-term, but that doesn’t work when, as now, the person possessing that quality is in an actual decision-making role.

Other things I read about Obama during the campaign were that he was intelligent, even-tempered, knowledgeable, polished and an all around good sort with compassion to spare for an entire nation. As for me, I worried about the fact that he had no friends, that we knew nothing about him, and that his vaunted intelligence, smooth temperament, morals, knowledge and polish were only as deep as the TV cameras. I think time is proving me right.

There’s a reason for my little extended meditation on Obama’s personality as it first appeared and as it actually is. For my own pleasure, I’ve been rereading Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which stands second only to Pride & Prejudice in my estimation.  P&P is a youthful work about first chances.  Persuasion, which was Austen’s last book, is a mature work about second chances.

Austen makes clear, though, that not all people are deserving of second chances.  An important character in the book, although he doesn’t fully make an appearance until about halfway through is a Mr. Eliot, a cousin to the heroine, and the heir to her father, a baronet.  Early in the book, Jane Austen explains that, in his 20s, this Mr. Eliot rudely ignored any family claims on him and, showing disrespect to the title in a class conscious age, married a “low born” woman simply for her money.  Later in the book, he reappears in his 30s, ostensibly a changed character.  All are charmed — except for Anne, the heroine, who does not trust him.  Her suspicions prove to be true, when she learns from a reliable source that he was and is a debauched, immoral and cruel man.

What struck me so much when I re-read the book, one I’ve read many times before although not in the past several years, was Austen’s description of Mr. Eliot at the mid-point in the book, when all are charmed, but for the suspicious, decent, and moral Anne:

Though they had now been acquainted a month, she could not be satisfied that she really knew his character. That he was a sensible man, an agreeable man, that he talked well, professed good opinions, seemed to judge properly and as a man of principle, this was all clear enough. He certainly knew what was right, nor could she fix on any one article of moral duty evidently transgressed; but yet she would have been afraid to answer for his conduct. She distrusted the past, if not the present. The names which occasionally dropt of former associates, the allusions to former practices and pursuits, suggested suspicions not favourable of what he had been.  She saw that there had been bad habits; that Sunday travelling had been a common thing; that there had been a period of his life (and probably not a short one) when he had been, at least, careless in all serious matters; and, though he might now think very differently, who could answer for the true sentiments of a clever, cautious man, grown old enough to appreciate a fair character?  How could it ever be ascertained that his mind was truly cleansed?

Mr Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open.  There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection.  Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others.  Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.

Mr Elliot was too generally agreeable. Various as were the tempers in her father’s house, he pleased them all. He endured too well, stood too well with every body. He had spoken to her with some degree of openness of Mrs Clay; had appeared completely to see what Mrs Clay was about, and to hold her in contempt; and yet Mrs Clay found him as agreeable as any body.

Taking aside details unique to the book and the time period, isn’t that a perfect picture of candidate Obama?  Here, let me strip the description of those same period and book details so that it’s just the bare bones about the character:

Though they had now been acquainted a month, she could not be satisfied that she really knew his character. That he was a sensible man, an agreeable man, that he talked well, professed good opinions, seemed to judge properly and as a man of principle, this was all clear enough. He certainly knew what was right, nor could she fix on any one article of moral duty evidently transgressed; but yet she would have been afraid to answer for his conduct. She distrusted the past, if not the present. The names which occasionally dropt of former associates, the allusions to former practices and pursuits, suggested suspicions not favourable of what he had been.  *** [T]hough he might now think very differently, who could answer for the true sentiments of a clever, cautious man, grown old enough to appreciate a fair character?  How could it ever be ascertained that his mind was truly cleansed?

Mr Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open.  There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others. This, to Anne, was a decided imperfection.  Her early impressions were incurable. She prized the frank, the open-hearted, the eager character beyond all others.  Warmth and enthusiasm did captivate her still. She felt that she could so much more depend upon the sincerity of those who sometimes looked or said a careless or a hasty thing, than of those whose presence of mind never varied, whose tongue never slipped.

Mr Elliot was too generally agreeable. Various as were the tempers in her father’s house, he pleased them all. He endured too well, stood too well with every body.

Jane Austen may have lived more than two hundred years ago, but human nature has not changed that much.  Narcissists are a recurring theme in history and literature, and her intelligent and acid pen knew precisely how to describe one.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

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  • http://www.mrshappyhousewife.com Mrs. Happy Housewife

    Thanks for that bit of Jane to go along with my coffee this morning. It does seem you have found a perfect description of our president. As we say here in the South, I would trust neither Mr. Eliot nor Mr. Obama in country outhouse with a muzzle on.

  • http://home.earthlink.net/~nooriginalthought/ Charles

    Yes, I remember reading that same NYT article, or at least an excerpt from it as I don’t read the NYT unless a blogger references it. (Was it here on your blog somewhere I read it?) What I do remember when I read it was thinking if he had been a Republican there would have been a much different spin on this “skill” to get everyone to think that he agreed with them. I could just imagine the NYT doing a piece on a Republican who spoke in Biblical tongues or something dispespectful like that.

    Yea for Jane Austen! I’ve never been a fan; but, over the years I’ve learned that her work is Great Literature.

    Despite the fact that so many on the left, especially in academic circles dismiss such classics as written by “dead, white men” (or in Jane Austin’s case a dead, white woman) and, therefore, in their opinion not relevant, it really is just as relevant today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. And, Book, you have now given a perfect example of why such Great Literature is considered Great Literature. It really is timeless.

    BTW, my first car was an old Chevy Nova that I bought from a Jane Austen fan – it had a bumper sticker that read “All things considered, I’d rather be reading Jane Austen.”

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    Financial Times just ran some advice from George Eliot on dealing with the financial crisis..specifically, avoiding the creation of moral hazard.

    Too many of our “educators”–mainly K-12 but even some college professors–tend to assume that we are infinitely smarter than people of earlier times and have little or nothing to learn from them. See my post about temporal bigotry.

  • suek

    Since the “well-read” post has disappeared from the list, here’s a list of books to consider for Christmas. Not much to do with Jane Austen, but perhaps could be considered as a different way to analyse Obama.

    http://westernrifleshooters.blogspot.com/2009/08/beck-list-of-books.html

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  • Danny Lemieux

    “Temporal bigotry” indeed, David Foster.

    I remember reading somewhere (G.K. Chesterton?) that cavemen needed an enormous storehouse of knowledge just to know how to survive without all the tools we have at our disposal today.

    A counter argument is that people today are more stupid than they were in older times because modern society enables (important word, that) them to survive by putting Darwin’s Law on hold.

    I hold up “limousine liberals”, “academics” and the “progressive/left” as exhibit #1, #2 and #3 for the prosecution.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    DannyL…”I remember reading somewhere (G.K. Chesterton?) that cavemen needed an enormous storehouse of knowledge just to know how to survive without all the tools we have at our disposal today.”

    Think how much navigational knowledge is embedded in a GPS…knowledge that, once upon a time (not too long ago) the navigator actually had to know for himself.

    I saw an article someone had posted down at the marina suggesting that boaters/yachtsmen really should have a backup in case their GPS failed. The suggestion was that they should get a second GPs….