Isn’t it ludicrous even to ask such a question? Apparently not, in the presidential race of 2008.
I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks absorbing and reflecting on the drama of the conventions. I got so whupped up alongside the head with the Palin pick, followed by incredulity at the delirious embrace by her party, that I’m only just now managing to mobilize some reactions. One of the strongest is that I don’t want – and we don’t need – “just a regular Joe – or Jane” – at the helm of this nation, whether as president or vice president.
Palin has been touted as a hockey mom normal folks can relate to, a small-town gal who somehow exudes virtue merely because of those roots, an NRA-backing good ol’ girl who can fish and hunt and dress her game alongside the boys – yet isn’t afraid to keep the boys in line in her state when they misbehave. Rah-rah, Sarah Barracuda.
Many of the contrasts drawn in the media barrage of late have been, interestingly, between Palin and Obama, not Palin and Biden. Perhaps it’s their similar age, and that each has been accused of an experience deficit. Obama’s detractors have further tried to frame him as a self-serving, offensively ambitious, liberal elitist, “out of touch” with regular folk like residents of Wasilla, Alaska — ergo, unfit to be president. (Oops – arrogant and presumptuous of me to resort to Latin; sorry.)
Apparently it’s a problem when a presidential candidate has an Ivy League education. Heaven forbid we’d want to put in office someone with a political science bachelor’s degree from Columbia with a specialization in international affairs, who then went on to Harvard Law School and became the first African-American to edit the Harvard Law Review. As good populists we are not going to make a distinction between Harvard and the University of Idaho.
Nor are we going to suggest that there is any difference in the value or quality of post-graduate experience in which one individual went on to a fellowship at the University of Chicago Law School while the other became a sports broadcaster for a local Anchorage TV station.
Obama, who chose to waste his time in community activism, directed the Illinois Project Vote from April to October 1992, a voter registration drive that marshaled 700 volunteers to achieve its goal of registering 150,000 of 400,000 unregistered African Americans in the state, leading Crain’s Chicago Business to name Obama to its 1993 list of “Forty under 40” powers to be. After being appointed as a Lecturer in constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Obama joined a small law firm specializing in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development. From there to the Illinois state senate, then to Washington where he held assignments on the Senate Committees for Veterans’ Affairs and Homeland Security, and served as Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on European Affairs. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he made official trips to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.
Ms. Palin got her first passport in 2007.
How dare someone suggest that there are different degrees of “inexperience”?
(Footnote: thanks to a Sept. 3 Xtreme English blog post called “Experience? Let’s Compare,” for some of these details.)
There’s been a lot of banter, too, about Obama’s “pretty language” and smooth rhetoric, suggesting that it’s all just a lot of words, a showy veneer. However, rhetoric – the ability to use language effectively, the art of persuasive oratory — has held a venerable place in classical education. Originating in ancient Greece, it was also taught in the Roman Empire and as one of the three subjects of the trivium, or liberal arts, during the Middle Ages, alongside logic and grammar. To communicate well persuasively – to order one’s thoughts, to select and support powerful arguments, and to make a case through potent, moving prose, is – take it from a college professor in 2008 – a rare and dying art. Far from being verbal fluff, effective oration reflects effective thinking.
A president who can think: a no-brainer? Maybe not. I’ve heard Obama criticized because he is not black and white enough on some issues, particularly those involving moral dilemmas. The fact that Obama recognizes and grapples with complexity is, for some, a weak spot, rather than a hallmark of a sharp intellect. Better that we have a president who can make pat, simple judgments and act forcibly on them, than wrestle with the layers and oppositions and challenges to reason presented by dilemmas like how to help Israelis and Palestinians live together, or how best to reduce the number of abortions in America, or whether or not “clean coal” can ever really be clean when hundreds of square miles of Appalachian mountaintops have been blasted away to get at it.
John McCain said in his acceptance speech that access to education is the new civil rights movement in America. He was applauded for that statement by his supporters on the convention floor. Yet these are the same voices who deride an African-American candidate’s “elite” education, who suggest that Obama is ill-suited to serve as president precisely because of such an academic pedigree.
Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “What struck me … is how much of the anger on the right is based not on the claim that Democrats have done bad things, but on the perception – generally based on no evidence whatsoever – that Democrats look down their noses at regular people.”
What irony. The party of labor, the party of the downtrodden, the party of the peripheral, the party of the people? Hasn’t something gotten twisted around here?
I’m a Democrat, from a long line of FDR-style Democrats, and I’d say I’m one of those regular people. My grandfather was a miner, who later with my grandmother moved to Seattle to help build airplanes during WWII. My other grandmother raised three girls on her own and walked each day – they had no car – to her job as a department store clerk in a small town. My father was a suburban P.E. teacher, my mother a dental assistant, and I worked as a grocery checker at Safeway in blue-collar Everett, Washington, to put myself through college. That’s pretty ‘regular.’
But I also value education and opening myself up to the wider world. I have a master’s degree in journalism and a Ph.D. in media studies. I have been to 46 countries and all 50 states, some of that travel through jobs, the rest financed by work and not sheer privilege. (In fact, I worked in Alaska for nine summers, and I know well the insularity and renegade personality of the state’s culture – and I’m not sure it’s an asset for bipartisan effectiveness in Washington, D.C.).
My education has taught me we are on the back side of the earth’s oil reserves. It’s taught me that simple physics says we are heating our atmosphere through record levels of human-produced greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve learned, through understanding science, that “Drill, baby, drill!” will only hurt us in the bigger scheme of things. I’ve learned that ecosystems matter, and it’s not in our self-interest to be cavalier about endangered species in order to suit our immediate political interests. My education has taught me how to do research, to find and critique data, to know, through an analysis of evidence, that trickle-down economics do not work. And that lasting democracy in Iraq or central Asia is a highly unlikely scenario, given millennia of tribal enmity and authoritarian regimes. My study of history, geography and culture suggests to me that if we vow to stay in Iraq till we achieve “victory,” we may never get out.
At every angle, Barack Obama seems to me a man who is fit to lead the most influential country in the world, in large part because he has the educational and cultural capital to do so. They are not sufficient alone – but they are essential. While my own academic credentials are nowhere close to Obama’s, I am absolutely certain that I am more capable – as a citizen, as a leader, and as a professional – by virtue of my education. To call me an elitist because I’m well educated is, well, just plain ignorant.
My concern is not whether a candidate ‘looks like me’ or has my background, or owns just a single house – but can the candidate understand and relate to and work for me, and my interests? A president needs to represent regular folks – but to best do so, he or she had best be a cut above in competence.