If Romney is Thurston Howell III, then Obama is The Professor

Did I really see that last night? The debate was a bad horror movie for liberals and progressives such as myself, who support Obama. It was Attack of the 50-Foot Etch-a-Sketch, Deluxe Edition vs. “Night of the Living Dead.”

In a strange personality transplant, Obama came across visually and emotionally as the irritated, removed, imperious Chief who did not want to be interrupted, thank you very much, challenged, questioned, or, in this case, noticed, while Romney cut against the grain of his own policies, personal history, and character to seem earnest, passionate and even occasionally wry.

When he wasn’t looking irritated that Romney had shown up for the debate, piercing into the President’s face as my cats do before they move in for the kill,  Obama was buried in his books. He stood at the lectern and sought refuge in scribbling notes, seemingly oblivious that he was on a split screen the entire time.

Obama didn’t go so far as to look at his watch, as President Bush famously did in the 1992 debate, but it amounted to the same message. Get me out of here, please.

The content was worse. 

If Romney channels Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island, as David Brooks sagely noted in a recent column, then Obama channels The Professor.

Eschewing all the bull’s eyes and obvious targets for retort and argument against Romney, he reverted under stress to what I believe is his most intuitive, default character: that of the academic who views the world at an insulated, safe remove.

This is the world from whence I came. Although I don't think academics make for good politicians, as I'll explain, I do like them as a group.

Like professors everywhere, Obama seemed to lack self-awareness of his own importance or presence. Humanities professors—aside from the few who become celebrities—can more or less say anything they want, as unintelligibly, incoherently, complexly, imprecisely, uncrisply, meanderingly, or ambivalently as they choose, because no one really listens, or takes them all that seriously outside of the confines of their world. Once they get tenure, even fewer people in their departments care.  

This is why university press books feel like a success if more than, say, 500 volumes are sold. The audience is small, the stakes smaller.

Professors seek insight, refuge, argument and solace in the weeds. Their great role is to view the world at an analytic remove. They are people who would, as did Obama last night, nod in apparent agreement while they were being eviscerated on-stage by an opponent’s arguments against them! What’s up with that?

Academics can mumble their way through answers to cover all the bases, with little fear that anyone will consider their comments of that much consequence.

Lest I sound critical of academicians (hah!), one of their great virtues is that they know where they stand, and they know their place in the world of ideas.

They’re not aspiring to write commercial bestsellers. They’re not giving lectures to be maximally succinct, crisp and “zinger”-like. Their lives are dedicated to “the weeds” that the rest of us would rather not have, or see, or slog through as we garden. And I'm glad that we have them.

Many humanities academics would consider the world of real politick, journalism, and non-academic publishing or media to be somewhat cheapening to their complicated ideas and conceptualizations.  

And that incredulity came through last night, too, with Obama.

He seemed almost defeated or hopelessly jaded--or, even bored???--toward the very office that he holds and aspires to keep.

Indeed, one of the most aggravating features of humanities academicians, to me, is that in the post-modern age they tend to view the quality of optimism that is the pulsing lifeblood of mainstream politics or social work to be an example of stupidity. The only intelligent stance is, of course, the ironic, and the wryly skeptical, the belief as novelist Scott Spencer describes of one character, that "the world is filled with vanity, stupidity, and darkness and even those who would want to do good" are lured into destructiveness "by their own incomplete thinking."

Obama offered “HOPE” as his very campaign slogan in 2008, but seemed to slither back into the more ironic, distanced stance in this debate. I almost get the sense that DC has disappointed Obama and left him without the reserves, whatever they may be, to crack the puzzle--even to crack the dishonorable, organized GOP resistance against him.

The bad debate performance exemplifies a frustration with this administration—the extent to which Obama hasn’t embraced politics or done the sleeves-rolled-up, Lyndon Johnsonian political work to effect change. 

And unlike true professors, last night Obama paired dithering, academic content of someone with no power with the irritated, imperious mannerism of someone with power.

It was a losing combination.

One more thing. On the list of the low-hanging fruit left hanging we can add that Obama’s commanding lead among women voters went unexploited. There was no reinforcement of this flank, of the women’s issues that have been so galvanizing in this campaign.

Compelling speakers do these 4 things every single time

The ability to speak clearly, succinctly, and powerfully is easier than you think

Former U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rally at the Anaheim Convention Center on September 8, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Barbara Davidson/Getty Images)
Personal Growth

The ability to communicate effectively can make or break a person's assessment of your intelligence, competence, and authenticity.

Keep reading Show less

Antimicrobial resistance is a growing threat to good health and well-being

Antimicrobial resistance is growing worldwide, rendering many "work horse" medicines ineffective. Without intervention, drug-resistant pathogens could lead to millions of deaths by 2050. Thankfully, companies like Pfizer are taking action.

Image courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are one of the largest threats to global health today.
  • As we get older, our immune systems age, increasing our risk of life threatening infections. Without reliable antibiotics, life expectancy could decline for the first time in modern history.
  • If antibiotics become ineffective, common infections could result in hospitalization or even death. Life-saving interventions like cancer treatments and organ transplantation would become more difficult, more often resulting in death. Routine procedures would become hard to perform.
  • Without intervention, resistant pathogens could result in 10 million annual deaths by 2050.
  • By taking a multi-faceted approach—inclusive of adherence to good stewardship, surveillance and responsible manufacturing practices, as well as an emphasis on prevention and treatment—companies like Pfizer are fighting to help curb the spread.
Keep reading Show less

Preserving truth: How to confront and correct fake news

Journalism got a big wake up call in 2016. Can we be optimistic about the future of media?

  • "[T]o have a democracy that thrives and actually that manages to stay alive at all, you need regular citizens being able to get good, solid information," says Craig Newmark.
  • The only constructive way to deal with fake news? Support trustworthy media. In 2018, Newmark was announced as a major donor of two new media organizations, The City, which will report on New York City-area stories which may have otherwise gone unreported, and The Markup, which will report on technology.
  • Greater transparency of fact-checking within media organizations could help confront and correct fake news. Organizations already exist to make media more trustworthy — are we using them? There's The Trust Project, International Fact-Checkers Network, and Tech & Check.
Keep reading Show less