When I was in college, being a bright lad with other bright friends, we would often engage in verbal play. And one thing I (eventually) learned was that, often, the wisest, snarkiest, most telling “comment” one could make was to say nothing at all. To very visibly say nothing at all. Because this let the listeners fill in their own snarky comment, or even two or three of them. Often the listeners came up with comments more clever than whatever it was that I would have said.
Eventually, I developed the tactic of simply raising my eyebrow when I knew that a smart comment was appropriate, but couldn’t come up with one that was good enough.
IMHO, Barak Obama is a master of using the “raised eyebrow. And I think it has greatly stunted his intellectual growth. I think he was afraid that he wasn’t good enough, afraid that his ideas were weak. And rather than entering into “battle”, exposing himself to challenges that would force him to get stronger, force him to refine his ideas, he simply used the raised eyebrow. he let everyone fill in their bright remarks for him. The New York Times did an article on Obama that I think shows him honing and displaying his ability:
He developed a leadership style based more on furthering consensus than on imposing his own ideas. Surrounded by students who enjoyed the sound of their own voices, Mr. Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.
To “impose” his ideas, he would first have to have some. Lacking any ideas that he thought worthy of defense, he simply listened. And there’s nothing better than simply listening to other people, when it comes to convincing them how smart you are.
Friends say he did not want anyone to assume they knew his mind — and because of that, even those close to him did not always know exactly where he stood. It is a tendency that could prove perilous on the campaign trail, as voters, rivals and the news media try to fix the positions of a senator with only two years in office.
“He then and now is very hard to pin down,” said Kenneth Mack, a classmate and now a professor at the law school, referring to the senator’s on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand style.
Listen to everyone. Nod. Smile (in assumed agreement). Everyone thinks you’re a genius, because you haven’t said anything stupid. Take no risks, because they might backfire.
Mr. Obama spent much of his time alone, curtailing his dating life after his first summer, when he met his future wife, a Harvard Law graduate named Michelle Robinson who was working in Chicago. He often played pickup basketball, replacing his deliberative off-court style with sharp elbows and aggressive grabs for the ball.
Confident in his physical skills, he was combative on the basketball court. Not confident of his intellectual skills, he was quiet in discussions.
I think the aloneness is another telling point. It’s hard work, smiling and listening to others, never “getting” to put yourself forward (because you’re afraid of what will happen if you do). Especially when you’re a competitive individual. Much easier to go off by yourself.
The law review struggled to decide whether affirmative action should factor into the selection of editors, and how much voice to give to critical race theorists, who argued that the legal system was inherently biased against minorities. That drew the ridicule of conservative students.
And it left the new president with a difficult choice. If he failed to use his office to criticize Harvard, Mr. Obama would anger black and liberal students; by speaking out, he would risk dragging himself and the review into the center of shrill debates.
People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words. Earlier, after a long, tortured discussion about whether it was better to be called “black” or “African-American,” Mr. Obama dismissed the question, saying semantics did not matter as much as real-life issues, recalled Cassandra Butts, still a close friend. According to Mr. Ogletree, students on each side of the debate thought he was endorsing their side. “Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me,” he said.
But mainly, Mr. Obama stayed away from the extremes of campus debate, often choosing safe topics for his speeches. At the black law students’ annual conference, he exhorted students to remember the obligations that came with their privileged education. His speeches, delivered in the oratorical manner of a Baptist minister, were more memorable for style than substance, Mr. Mack said.
“It’s the inspiration of the speech rather than the specific content,” he said.
Another of Mr. Obama’s techniques relied on his seemingly limitless appetite for hearing the opinions of others, no matter how redundant or extreme. That could lead to endless debates — a mouse infestation at the review office provoked a long exchange about rodent rights — as well as some uncertainty about what Mr. Obama himself thought about the issue at hand.
In dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.
Beldar has an excellent post on Obama’s tenure as President of the Harvard Law Review. In it he points out that the normal course of affairs would be for Obama, as head editor, to write an article for the law review (this being a requirement, rather than a benefit of the position). Obama didn’t do that. Why? IMHO, because that would ahve forced him to put himself out there, where he could be judged and criticized.
Dean Barnett has written a lot of insightful things about Obama. He did it again Thursday, coming close to the point I’m making:
Professionally, Obama steadily declined to test himself and experience potential adversity. While most of his Harvard Law classmates entered the maw of big law firm life knowing they would either thrive or fail, Obama shrunk back in relative safety, organizing communities, teaching a con-law class, writing a book and generally living the life of a dilettante intellectual.
In the past, he’s commented on how hard it’s been to find any of Obama’s classmates, liberal or conservative, who had negative things to say about Obama. Dean has seen this as a positive thing. I, however, think it’s just a sign of how good Obama is at hiding himself, at using the raised eyebrow.
Others have commented on how Obama’s never really stuck to anything. He spend a couple of years doing something, then moves on, before he might have to actually deal with the consequences of his actions, before he might be judged on the quality of his choices. Raise the eyebrow, then move on.
And now we come to Election 2008. Obama’s campaign to become President of the United States (or is it President of the World?). The campaign of Hope and Change™. He’s been widely (and justifiably) mocked for this, often with the assumption that he’s acting this way because he’s a left-wing radical who knows that he has to hide his views from the voters if he wants to win the election.
But while I once thought that was the case, I no longer do. Watching Obama over the last several months has led me to the conclusion that he has no clue what he actually believes in. He needs to join a church to have credibility as a community organizer? Fine, he joins a church. Trinity seems to offer the best political bonus, so he joins Trinity. Reverend Wright is a flaming nutcase? Smile and nod. Getting into politics, need to throw a fundraiser? Well, who’s well known in the area? William Ayers, former terrorist? Well, everyone around him seems to think it’s no big deal. Smile and nod. US is going to invade Iraq? What do the people around him think? They don’t like it? Smile and nod. He’s in politics now, so he can’t just smile and nod, he has to make a speech. So he makes a speech that his current friends will like.
Senator Obama has become a US Senator, and is about to be the Democrat Party Nominee for President, based on a lifetime of the raised eyebrow. He smiles, nods, listens, and tells people what they want to hear, and they love him. The problem for him is that will only get you so far. His campaign speeches are nothing but fatuous generalities, because he doesn’t know how to actually hold and present a meaningful opinion. He’s 46 years old, and doesn’t have the slightest clue about international affairs. (See comments about Israel and Jerusalem.) The one thing he knows is that he can’t admit to mistakes. His resume is non-existent, he’s running on his “judgment”. To admit that his judgment sucks is to destroy the fig leaf he’s offered to voters to explain why they’re voting for him.
I don’t think he’s going to be able to make it to election day just based on his ability to make everyone think he agrees with them. I think he’s going to get pinned down, and shown up for the empty suit that he is. because a raised eyebrow just isn’t enough to get yourself elected President.