ome concepts are too difficult to explain in everyday speech. Look up Sartre, Heidegger, Husserl and you’ll find a whirligig of lofty but arcane words — eidetic, ontological, transphenomenal. What non-philosophers know of Sartre is usually limited to the one-size-fits-all “Hell is other people,” a pithy line from the 1944 play “No Exit.”
Unlike European states, which for centuries prized high intellect as an adjunct of refinement, all but nationalizing erudition, the United States instead adopted a frontier-oriented culture that put action ahead of words and often associated glibness with oily pretentiousness. Political figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman won applause not for their considerable smarts but for their buck-stopping spunk, as in Teddy’s San Juan Hill charge and Harry’s straight talk.
Here’s where the coming American presidential race might make for a peculiar picture.
If former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination, an increasingly likely prospect, two members of a minority intellectual elite will square off in times more mistrustful than ever of the urbane.
A taste of this bizarreness emerged when Romney benignly used the word “marvelous” to describe the planned Democratic budget. President Barack Obama immediately pounced on the word’s Boston prep school edge to implicitly suggest Romney’s remoteness from pickup trucks and hard knocks, the strangest of digs since neither man boasts calluses. As difficult as it is to imagine Obama morphing into a pot that calls the kettle black — the idiom a reference to shared traits, not race — that’s just what may lie ahead.
Here was Harvard Law Obama making Harvard MBA Romney look estranged from day-to-day speech, a supreme paradox since the loquacious Obama was elected on the stirring coattails of transformation-promising dreams that goaded undecided independent voters to briefly hitch their carts to Oz. Their rapture handed him the election.
But that rapture never diminished their misgivings about his glibness, which among muckrakers was manifest in questions about his past, his religion, his race, his heritage, a set of malicious fabrications assembled to portray an alien-ness many Americans found unsettling then and still resent now.
What’s peculiar is watching tormented Republicans prepare to field a contender who, minus race, stands for a similar kind of alien-ness, that of extreme wealth, “noble” family status, of uncharted religion, not to mention deep association with one of America’s most progressive, and therefore suspect, states.
If that turns out to be the case, Mr. Marvelous (once CEO of one of the world’s largest consultancy firms) and incumbent President Socialist (now ironically chummy with Wall Street’s rehabilitated elite) will be tasked with wooing a considerable number of non-urban voters who begrudge both privilege and erudition. The nationally ingrained Tea Party movement remains a potent force, its “resistance movement” sympathizers largely responsible for Rick Santorum’s strong showing. They disparage Obama in much the same way self-styled liberals went after George W. Bush ahead of the 2004 vote.
Assuming the autumn presidential run pits a stubborn, clever, and articulate incumbent with a mixed record against an former corporate chief with vast resources but little street cred, what then?
On paper, the battle between aliens goes to Obama, who has solemnly endured an erratic presidency bogged down by closet racism. He inherited a weak economy that is only slightly better, thanks mostly to the shortcomings of others. He long ago set aside dream mantras and attempted to settle into the role of president, a kind of national father figure.
Except that few perceive him as a dad, even now. And that’s a problem.
While it’s hard to imagine pickup truck owners rushing to embrace Mr. Marvelous, it’s not at all hard to see Obama’s briefly star-struck 2008 independents looking elsewhere for oxygen. Many are spiteful. Though no common man, Mr. Marvelous doesn’t carry the burden of being seen by some as a bailout-happy Muslim Socialist who uses his eloquence to spread lies (it’s pick your poison with Obama). Coalescing against the transphenomenal by picking Mr. Marvelous, a Republican luxury brand, isn’t out of the question. After all, Obama’s own campaign was the sum of improbable alliances.
In the late fall of 1992, conservative columnist William Safire, once a Richard Nixon speechwriter and an ardent supporter of Ronald Reagan, announced in a column that he’d lost faith in the first George Bush. At the same time he didn’t much like Bill Clinton. Maybe, he suggested, the time had come to censor smell. His advice: Wear a clothespin and vote Clinton.
As improbable as it seems, Mr. Marvelous may well hold the clothespin advantage, which given the snarl of the socialist objection could spell big trouble for a sitting president who in 2008 received a Nobel Prize just for being elected but who will soon be forced to reckon with a hometown jury that’s not only tougher than any European academy, but also eager to finally grade visionary pretenses on its own terms.