Saturday, July 2, 2016

On Obama, Man of Letters

If you are a journalist, there's a good chance that a part of you fancies yourself a man of letters. Despite the confines of your profession -- for most publications, the journalist must adhere to one specific prose style that may not be his "voice" and due to the exigencies of economy, the journalist doesn't have enough time to thoroughly analyze most subjects -- you like to think of yourself as a wide reader and careful thinker. The idea of retreating to your study for long hours, reading books, studying important documents, writing a little, but still remaining engaged with the larger society on some level, appeals to you. The drudgery of corporate law or the lack of intellectual stimulation of investment banking is not for you. You have given up material desires for a more rewarding life of the mind.

There are certain cultural markers for these contemporary, would-be man of letters. Today's man of letters watches television. In fact, television has become a kind of cultural currency. The masses watch Blue Bloods and Grey's Anatomy. The man of letters watches Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and, to be a little more prosaic, Game of Thrones. The man of letters reads contemporary literary fiction by writers who show up on Fresh Air. The man of letters likes sports. He's really into soccer, but hates football because of its brutality. The man of letters ignores the encroaching concussion crisis that will hit the soccer world within the next few years. The man of letters appreciates complexity when it comes to important political decisions. He's willing to hear arguments in favor of drone warfare, just as he was willing to read defenses of torture and the denial of civil liberties in Slate 15 years ago following the September 11 attacks. The man of letters thinks protesters are obnoxious and often stupid. He has no problem with college classes on Toni Morrison. But he wishes there were fewer classes on Beyonce and more classes on Marlowe, even though the man of letters hasn't read any Marlowe since college.

I, at best, dabble in journalism, but I have more than a little of this man of letters in me, and I don't think it's all bad. I value intelligence and complexity and I am suspicious of protesters. I think some of the best fiction of the last ten years can be found in long-form hour-long cable dramas, and I listen to NPR. I also struggle through difficult works of film theory, and I know that the difference between a good study of silent film and what the man of letters may discover in The New Yorker is vast and insurmountable.

This Times story about Barack Obama's nighttime working habits flatters the idea of the aspiring man of letters. It depicts a disciplined worker and thinker, someone who reads a stack of memos every night and makes detailed notes, not just out of a sense of personal responsibility but also intellectual curiosity. Obama likes sports and he reads novels. Oh, and he digs Breaking Bad. Any journalist can identify with this figure, certainly more so than with the president's two predecessors, one of whom was in bed by 10 and read books for quantity more than quality, and the other who enjoyed talking on the phone late at night, including with you-know-who.

Hillary Clinton doesn't watch Breaking Bad. According to the recent profile of her by Rebecca Traister, she digs NCIS, House of Cards -- which the man of letters recognizes is a terrible show -- and Grey's Anatomy. She admits that she's at a stage in life in which she's not interested in difficult novels. After a long day of campaigning, she just wants to hit her bed. She doesn't do introspection. If anything, her career suggests that she thinks very very hard about any particular problem before coming to one particular solution which often involves some acknowledgement of a middle way. At that point the time for compromise is over. It's time to fight for that particular solution. This is not necessarily a bad approach for a leader, but it's contrary to the aspiring man of letters's view of what it means to be a thinker.

Personality-wise, I prefer Obama to Clinton. I even prefer Obama to Sanders, a figure whose politics align better with my own. Obama is like an old interlocutor from college, a fellow aspiring man of letters, one who worked a lot harder than I worked and has plenty to show for it. But there's nothing in Clinton's way of being, in her personal tastes -- I'm assuming these actually are her personal tastes, and not a list of preferences one of her assistants prepared -- or how she wants to think through particular issues. I just wish we would acknowledge how much identity politics affects journalists. Are you more forgiving of Obama's policy on drone warfare than you would have been of such a policy during the George W. Bush administration or a hypothetical 2009-2017 Hillary Clinton presidency? Does hanging out in a study, quietly perusing and carefully analyzing important documents, all while writing thoughtful emails to your friends and reading the occasional novel, make you a better person? A better leader? A good president? Maybe. Maybe not.

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