Obama's revenge of the nerds


Steven Stark has a good read on how the Obama administration has the biggest collection of brainpower since the long-gone days of JFK -- and how that carries its own risks.

[I]t's worth remembering how radical a change this is in our political life. "The best and the brightest" and "the wise men" had absolutely no use for George W. Bush. And, to be honest, they weren't crazy about his father (patrician, but still too Texan), Bill Clinton (too Arkansas), Ronald Reagan (too Hollywood and undependent on them), Jimmy Carter (he made them a sworn enemy), Richard Nixon (of course), and Lyndon B. Johnson (who despised the Harvard people who had surrounded John F. Kennedy). In fact, in a comparison that Obama would welcome, you have to go back to JFK — and then Franklin D. Roosevelt — to find the last presidents so in tune with the nation's Ivy League elite.

The good news, of course, is that this elite comprises people who are very smart, and smarts are what we need to get out of the economic mess we're in. "Egghead" should no longer be a pejorative term, as it has been for two generations, going back to the original egghead in the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson.

But there are two dangers for the new president. The first is that he may be setting himself up for a populist political revolt. Syndicated columnist Froma Harrop recently wrote that one thing separating our current era from FDR's is the lack of populist figures to challenge the status quo, such as Huey Long or Upton Sinclair. Well, give it time. The economic crisis has been with us only a few months, and Obama's administration isn't yet a week old. If the crisis lingers, the populists will appear. And, even when it's over and people suddenly realize their 401(k)s are never coming back, they will be looking for scapegoats, only to find that some of the major potential villains, such as Larry Summers (who failed to regulate the markets adequately the first time around when he should have as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary), have desks right next to the president. If that begins to happen, Obama shouldn't be shy about letting heads roll.

The second danger was persuasively outlined by David Halberstam in his seminal history, The Best and the Brightest (a term used ironically) — the story of how the best brains of the '60s got us immersed in the Vietnam War. It might be described as the conceit of intellect. Put another way, there's a story that, when Socrates went to see the Oracle at Delphi, the Oracle told the philosopher he was the wisest man in Greece. Socrates took that to mean that he knew enough to know that he didn't know.

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