In his recent address at the Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner, comedian and proud nerd John Hodgman mused that Barack Obama may be the first nerd president of the modern era. The conventional wisdom during the campaign, of course, was that Obama was more cool than geeky. But there’s no debate over the group he’s brought with him: the eggheads have returned to Washington. Does the rise of the Orszags and Geithners, teamed with the President’s professorial mindset, signal that liberal intellectuals can finally come out of the closet? Will the Democratic Party at long last be able to shed the “elitist” label that doomed so many of its hopefuls, from Michael Dukakis to Al Gore? History suggests otherwise.
Since its founding, the U.S. has vacillated between its geek and jock inclinations. The independent provincial spirit of the frontier has vied with a bookish Eastern inquisitiveness, and, as a result, Americans have revered both strong, folksy leaders they could have a beer with (Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan, George W. Bush) and those whose intellect they admired (Jefferson, Lincoln, and Obama). The real question is which is in vogue at a particular time.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter chronicled the ebb and flow of anti-intellectual feeling in the U.S., including the rise and fall of the “eggheads” in American public life. The term “egghead” denoted one who was out of touch with the common man, a head-in-the-clouds brainiac who lacked common sense. The phrase reached its zenith in the 1950s–Richard Nixon used it particularly successfully against Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, turning the reserved statesman’s intellectual demeanor into a political liability.
Writing in 1964, Hofstadter doubted that the Kennedy administration’s “whiz kids” would fare much better than their predecessors: he noted how in prior periods in American history, the “common folk” naturally suspicious of urbanity and learning–local evangelical preachers and small town lawyers and businessmen–had always rebelled in response to such leaders. And, as another prize-winning book, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, showed, they had good reason to be suspicious. Many of the Ivy League-educated leaders of academia and industry who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were directly responsible for the boneheaded policies that had such disastrous consequences in Vietnam.
If history is any guide, the Obama administration will not succeed at permanently removing anti-intellectualism from the national mindset. Sure, Obama’s got a cool factor, and he’s hired what has to be the best pickup hoops squad in White House history. But, ultimately, this group is a bunch of braniacs. The jocks will almost certainly rise again. Obama’s whiz kids should focus their brain power on creating lasting reforms to health care, education, the economy, and energy, and do their best to emulate some of America’s more distinguished eggheads. After all, as Hodgman noted in his address, the most famous nerds in American history were its own founding fathers.
WATCH John Hodgman’s send-up at the Radio and TV Correspondents’ Dinner
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