When I was in high school, I developed a trick to make myself look smarter. I learned the beginning of a few key quotations, all tied into the classical literary or historic canon. At appropriate moments in a conversation, I’d start the quote, and then quickly trail off, as if I didn’t want to bore the listener with the whole thing. That left the listener with the impression, completely untrue, that I actually knew the whole work from which the quotation was drawn.
“Well, of course he’s lazy. It’s like ‘the lilies of the field’ all over again. But you were saying?”
“I know, I know. ‘To thine own self be true,’ and all that. But isn’t it time that he began doing something for others?”
“Well, it’s like Dickens said: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Some people like what Obama’s doing better than others do.”
In each case, I left the impression that I was intimately acquainted with Christ’s sermons, Shakespeare’s plays, or Dickens’ lively prose. I can do the same thing with Chaucer, Donne, Byron, Lincoln, etc. I throw out a clause and then stop abruptly, leaving the quite false impression that there’s a depth of knowledge there.
Now that I’m older, I don’t actually play this game anymore. It was a great trick when I was young, since it impressed older people. I finally figured out, though, that it turned off my peers who knew, correctly, that I was being arrogant. Being more mature has its virtues, some of which actually offset the wrinkles and gray hair. Not engaging in cheap parlor tricks to create false impressions about my smarts is one of those time-learned virtues.
Which brings me around to Obama, of course. As you’ve probably heard by now, his Oval Office remodel, in addition to reminding some (myself included) of generic conference rooms and hotel lobbies, has a major inaccuracy in it: the specially designed carpet incorrectly attributes a quotation to Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King did indeed say that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The problem with the Oval Office carpet is that he didn’t originate those words. Instead, Theodore Parker, an abolitionist who died on the eve of the Civil War, spoke those lovely words.
One could say that this is a small mistake, since the words are by now strongly associated with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. However, we’re not just talking about my making a mistake in a little conversation when I’m throwing my (false) intellectual weight around. Instead, we’re talking memorializing language in a carpet, in the office of the most powerful man in the world.
Someone ought to have taken the time to do a little investigation to make sure that all was accurate. Indeed, anyone with any depth of knowledge when it came to King should have been especially careful, since King was known to borrow words, both legitimately (as here, where he never claimed that Parker’s were his words, although he didn’t attribute them either) and illegitimately (as with his lifelong plagiarism problem). King was a brilliant, brave and, where it counted, a moral man, but that doesn’t erase the historical fact that you’d better double-check to make sure that his words were always his own.
All of which leads Thomas Lifson to reach a few conclusions about Obama himself:
The error perfectly encapsulates the shallowness of Barack Obama’s intellect, and his lack of rigor. Obama is a man who accumulated academic credentials while giving no evidence whatsoever of achieving any depth. He was the only president of the Harvard Law Review to graduate without penning a signed article in that esteemed journal. His academic transcripts remain under lock and key, as do his academic papers.
For the sort of people like David Brooks of the New York Times, who are impressed by fancy degrees and a sharp crease in the trousers, Obama may appear to be the smartest ever occupant of the Oval Office. But, as the old joke goes, deep down, he is shallow. Underfoot, literally, there is woven into his background a prominent vein of phoniness.
For some reason or other, Obama has been able to skate through academia and politics without ever being seriously challenged to prove his depth. A simple veneer of glibness has been enough to win the accolades of the liberal intelligentsia. But now that he has actual responsibilities — including relatively trivial ones like custodianship of the inner sanctum of the presidency — his lack of substance keeps showing up in visible, embarrassing and troubling ways.
Yup. Been there, done that myself. But I outgrew it. He hasn’t.
Incidentally, you see the flip side of all of this with Jan Brewer’s paralyzing moment of silence during the debate. Jan Brewer is not glib. Instead, she is more of a Moses:
Then Moses said to the LORD, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since You have spoken to Your servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus, 4:10)
I don’t think that anyone would argue that Moses’ slow speech meant that he had a slow intellect, lacked leadership abilities, or that he was ethically challenged. No one — at least no one who isn’t as shallow as a plate — would conflate moral heft or intelligence with glibness. Oh, wait. I’m wrong. Everyone on the Left does exactly that.
To the Left, the fact that Obama reads well from the teleprompter and tosses around a few erudite phrases (and he has well-creased pants, per David Brooks) means, ipso facto, that the man must be a genius. (And since I’m a lawyer, I do get to throw around the phrase ipso facto with a certain professional aplomb.) Who cares that he has a blank record when it comes to actual proof of intelligence, common sense, practical abilities or moral compass?
And about Jan Brewer? Forget her effective time as governor, and the brave and moral stance she’s taken on behalf of Arizonans (and other Americans) by standing up to the federal government for its refusal to enforce its own laws. If you’re a Progressive, the fact that she suffered a momentary brain freeze means she’s obviously an idiot, as are all the people who look past the words and into her depths, and who support her on account of the latter qualities, not the former.
As I said at the top of this post, I know a shallow intellect when I see it.