Barack Obama is hip to Margaret Mead

In a revealing campaign trail moment, the Illinois senator reveals himself to be ... yes ... the son of an anthropologist.

By Walter Shapiro

Published November 28, 2007 12:33PM (EST)

No presidential candidate in history -- not the polymath Thomas Jefferson, not the orator William Jennings Bryan, not the egghead Adlai Stevenson -- has ever uttered a sentence like this: "My mother was an anthropologist [and] the Margaret Mead reference I'm always hip to."

The speaker (no surprise) was Barack Obama, whose late mother, Ann Dunham, earned a master's degree in anthropology from the University of Hawaii. The Margaret Mead comment was sparked by a questioner who had announced that he was a former student of the author of "Coming of Age in Samoa." But the phrase "I'm always hip to" was pure Obama.

The exchange took place during a Tuesday morning foreign policy discussion here as Obama and his leading advisors gathered at a long table featuring the banner "Judgment to Lead." The implicit political message was, of course, that Obama's wisdom in initially opposing the Iraq war is a more relevant credential than the length of his career in national office. And the roster of experts (including former national security advisor Tony Lake, former assistant secretary of state Susan Rice and Pulitzer Prize-winning Harvard professor Samantha Power) were designed to underscore the message that a significant chunk of the Democratic Party's foreign policy elite supports Obama and not Hillary Clinton.

But enough of this standard-issue political analysis. Obama's response to the question posed by the disciple of Margaret Mead is far more relevant to the job of actually being president. The initial query was, in essence, why is America so consistently dense about other cultures?

In a lengthy answer, Obama suggested that part of the problem is that this generation's best and brightest were working overseas for Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong and not for the government. But then the fledgling Illinois senator offered an observation about understanding non-Western cultures that transcended the particulars of the question and spoke to a larger foreign policy perspective.

"You can't wait to do some of this work until there is a crisis," he said. "This is a chronic problem in Washington. It has to do with our 30-second attention span. You want to get to know a country and figure out what are the interests and who are the players. You can't parachute in. Iraq is a classic example, and Iran now may be another example, where we are entirely isolated from these countries and have no idea what's going on. We don't have good intelligence on them. And we're basically making a series of decisions in the blind. And that is dangerous for us."

This is not a voting issue -- and it is quite possible that Hillary Clinton (not to mention Joe Biden) could have given an equally substantive reply to a similar question. In the hurly-burly of campaign coverage, reflective moments like this inevitably get lost. But it is worth noting that on a crisp November Tuesday, six weeks before the New Hampshire primary, Obama demonstrated that he understood the reasons why America for decades (think of the Bay of Pigs invasion) has made gravely serious national security decisions based on laughably inaccurate intelligence.

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama