It has always struck me as inherently unconvincing to argue that President Obama is an elitist, considering that he grew up as a mixed-race kid raised largely by his grandparents in a home of unextraordinary wealth. It’s true that he managed to get himself a couple of Ivy League degrees, but you could say the same thing about most presidents, even brush-clearing George W. Bush. In fact, Dubya, despite his down-home affectations, fits the bill of an elitist in nearly archetypical fashion. The son of a president and grandson of a senator, he was, as Ann Richards famously put it, “born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple.” Barack Obama was born in the on-deck circle and hit an actual home run.
But, whatever, the difference is that very few people ever took a look at George Bush and came away thinking that he was smarter than they are, so he didn’t elicit the visceral “he’s thinks he’s better than you” response that Obama sometimes does. Some folks don’t like people who are contemplative. So it goes.
Matthew Continetti wants to riff on this elitist thing, so he seizes on an anecdote from a long Obama profile Carrie Budoff Brown and Jennifer Epstein did for Politico about a dinner the president had in March while visiting Italy. Obama had asked the U.S. ambassador to assemble some interesting dinner guests. Here’s a partial list of things about this dinner that Continetti objects to, presumably because they demonstrate that the president is not a man of the people:
- The dinner was held at the Villa Taverna, which has a history that “goes as far back as the tenth century” and has an art collection that “includes Roman sarcophagi and centuries-old imperial busts.”
- The food and wine were too good: “The menu that evening included a variety of pastas, and wines from Tuscany and the regions around Venice.”
- The president was rude and talked for too long: “Dinner lasted four hours.”
- The president was “at home” in this “sumptuous and Baroque setting, amid these beautiful artifacts of long-gone civilizations.”
- The guests were too rich and smart: “The interesting Italians surrounding him included a particle physicist, two heirs to the Fiat auto fortune, and the postmodern architect Renzo Piano.”
- The conversation was too intellectual: “The dinner conversation…touched on architecture, on art, on science, and on urban planning.”
- The president had too good of a time: “The next morning, during a briefing, the president—whose office holds a burden of responsibility matched only by its power—regretted that his job involved duties other than pretentious conversation with extremely wealthy famous people.”
Perish the thought that this man who has degrees from Columbia and Harvard might sometimes pine for a life of the mind devoid of the mundane responsibilities of heading a political party and leading a nation. And he’s drinking Tuscan wine!!!
Roy Edroso rightfully mocked Continetti, not only for the aforementioned nonsense, but for making up the conversations he imagines take place at the president’s dinners in order to criticize them. That exercise in projection is actually amusing, but not so his effort to enlist Friedrich Nietzsche in the defense of his argument.
The next time the president indulges in his intellectual curiosity, perhaps someone will bring up the subject of political philosophy. I for one can not help thinking of Nietzsche when I consider the drift and lassitude and emptiness of Obama’s post-presidential presidency. The sort of exhaustion we see every day was predicted long ago. “Who still wants to rule? Who obey? Both require too much exertion,” wrote the German philosopher of the Last Men whom he predicted would appear at the end of History, would emerge when democracy was triumphant. These hollow-chested men, Nietzsche said, would blanch at the first site of difficulty. They would surrender and look inward, content to spend their days in the pursuit of pleasure. In Obama we have more than a Last Man. We have a Last President.
As a philosophy major I can attest that there are few things less likely to end happily than a half-wit undergrad carrying a copy of Also sprach Zarathustra.
And, so, Continetti calls forth the Übermensch to criticize elitism.