Conservo-pundits pan Obama speech (sort of)

Krauthammer, Gerson not sure how to deal with the new president's inaugural address.

Published January 23, 2009 2:15PM (EST)

How will conservative thinker-commentators react to Barack Obama, especially after their private, George Will-hosted dinner with the then-president elect? We have some preliminary results to judge.

Here's Charles Krauthammer, a dinner attendee, on Obama's "rhetorically flat" address, in this morning's Washington Post:

The most striking characteristic of Barack Obama is not his nimble mind, engaging manner or wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. It's the absence of neediness. He's Bill Clinton, master politician, but without the hunger.

Clinton craves your adulation (the source of all his troubles). Obama will take it, but he can leave it, too. He is astonishingly self-contained. He gives what he must to advance his goals, his programs, his ambitions. But no more. He has no need to.

Which seems to me the only way to understand the mediocrity of his inaugural address. The language lacked lyricism. The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln's second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush's second inaugural.

Elsewhere on today's WaPo editorial page, there is non-dinner attendee Michael Gerson, same subject. After applauding the racial-historical meaning of Obama's moment, Gerson shifts to an ironic -- hypocritical -- lecture:

But there was a second, less sympathetic, Obama enthusiasm at work. In a Newsweek essay, Michael Hirsh mentioned Obama's racial achievement. But he went on to say that "there's something else that I'm even happier about -- positively giddy. . . . What Obama's election means, above all, is that brains are back." Hirsh declared that the Obama era means the defeat of "yahooism" and "jingoism" and "flag-pin shallowness" and "religious zealotry" and "anti-intellectualism." Obama is a "guy who keeps religion in its proper place -- in the pew."

There is much to unpack here. Can it be that Hirsh is "even happier" about the advance of liberal arrogance than he is about the advance of racial justice? And would the civil rights movement have come at all if African American religion had stayed "in the pew"? But suffice it to say that some wish to interpret the Obama victory as a big push in the culture war -- as an opportunity to attack their intellectual and cultural "inferiors."

Most of us have witnessed this attitude, usually in college. The kids who employed contempt instead of argument, who shouted down speakers they didn't agree with, who thought anyone who contradicted them had a lower IQ, who talked of "reason" while exhibiting little of it. They were often not the brightest of bulbs. Most people recover from this childish affliction. Some do not.

Come again? It was this very anti-intellectualism and flag-pin shallowness that lead to the demeaning (and surveilling) of opponents, the hiding and manipulating of solid science, the use of fear to cower people into lockstep submission. We should only be so lucky if such attitudes disappeared once people grabbed their college diplomas. But they defined the all-too-childish Bush era. Maybe Gerson was too close to the tantrums to notice.

It's perhaps too early to tell, but Obama's historical significance, much but not all of it bounded to his race and racial identity, forces conservative pundits to tread very gingerly. Ultimately, the critique will have to be about policy and ideology which, when you think about it, is as it should be. As Krauthammer's deft comparison of Obama and Bill Clinton and Gerson's fumbling attempt to make (college) sophomoric analogies show, the use of cultural or identity attacks just will not work, or not work as well, anymore.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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