News & Criticism

The Smartest Guy in the Room

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That's who you are, when you're in a room with Barack Obama. That's no slur on the president-elect's intelligence; on the contrary, he seems like a very bright chap. But from everything I've read and heard about people who have dealt with him one on one, including the Reason Foundation's Mike Flynn, the true political genius of Barack Obama is the way that he makes YOU feel like you're the most important, the most intelligent, and doggone it the most independent-minded person in the conversation. Which is always startling, even pleasant, when talking with someone who works in a profession based on narcisissm. Then, after you leave the room, he votes or acts exactly like you thought he was going to before you ever met him. The difference is now you feel like a million bucks.

So keep that in mind, as you read Larry Kudlow say stuff like, "He is charming, he is terribly smart, bright, well-informed, he has a great sense of humor….He is so well-informed, and he loves to deal with both sides of an issue." Or when Andrew Sullivan says, "It's hard to express the relief I feel that this man will be the president soon." More importantly, keep that in mind when you read those guys (or George Will, or Peggy Noonan, or E.J. Dionne, or Maureen Dowd, or whoever else gets the charm offensive treatment this January) assessing Obama two or four years from now. Is the new prez "transcending simplistic and unnecessary partisanship, and at just the pitch-perfect historical moment," or is he finding out just how cheap a date A-list pundits are?

As the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes memorably wrote in defending his galpal Sarah Palin against Republican meanies like Noonan and David Brooks,

it comes down to who is more credible. Is it those who've worked with her, or know her, or have at least met and talked with her? Or those who haven't? The answer is a no-brainer. Okay, I may be biased on the subject of Palin, having been impressed after spending nearly two hours with her on one occasion and an hour on another.

In a country of 300 million people, nothing trumps personal musk in making political assessments. Or does it?

A quarter-century ago (ouch!) the great baseball thinker and writer Bill James planted the flag for a generation of geeky analysts who would eventually revolutionize the game, but were marginal at the time, in a terrific essay extolling the virtues of outsider perspective:

You know the expression about not being able to see the forest for the trees? Let's use that. […]

The first thing is, the insider has a much better view of the details. He knows what the moss looks like, how light it grows around the base of an oak and how thickly it will cling to a sycamore. He knows the smells in the air and the tracks on the ground; he can guess the age of a redbud by peeling off a layer of bark. The outsider doesn't know any of that. […]

There will be in this book no new tales about the things that happen on a team flight, no sudden revelations about the way that drugs and sex and money can ruin a championship team. I can't tell you what a locker room smells like, praise the Lord.

But perspective can only be gained when details are lost. A sense of the size of everything and the relationship between everything—this can never be put together from details. For the most essential fact of a forest is this: The forest itself is immensely larger than anything inside of it. That is why, of course, you can't see the forest for the trees

I am sure we will read many fine words about how thickly moss will cling to Obama's sycamore (sorry!). Meanwhile, we've got a burning forest on our hands, and we here in the cheap seats will continue to examine what no insider perspective can tell us: Is the stuff he's preparing to throw on the fire mixed with gasoline? Ten and 100 years from now, that will likely matter more than Larry Kudlow's dinner last night.