A full suit

So, I got in an argument online, and my interlocutor tried writing off President Obama as an “empty suit” on the basis of having met him once, in the course of saying several other inane things I am too lazy to disambiguate and respond to. Being lazy, I just took aim at the “empty suit” line. Not that it should interest anyone, but if you thought you sounded smart saying you met Obama once and he’s clearly an empty suit, maybe this will be worth reading.

There may not be that much I can offer to someone who is pretty sure that Obama is an empty suit–we disagree about a *lot*. I don’t think it makes sense to try and change your thoughts about the whole of Trump’s weird toddler-ness or trade policy in one short thread–I’m not sure which of us would tire first, but it seems unlikely much would change in either of our minds. But I do think I should be able to change your mind about Obama being an empty suit. There’s just no good evidence for that whatever, and a lot of *great* evidence to the contrary. He’s a Harvard Law Review editor, a book author, an excellent speech writer, a decent amateur basketball player, and somehow also someone who isn’t full of himself–at least compared to most politicians. He tends to understatement, evenhandedness, and a light touch in his words and writings, or anyway that is how I would characterize him… but you seem to feel very differently? (No fair attacking the celebrities who supported him–no person with fans is proud of all of his fans.)

I think maybe it’s worth asking if your impression of him was affected by the circumstances–maybe he was having an off day, or had something important to think about and wasn’t really paying attention to you? Also, a lot of politicians are pretty guarded when they are dealing with audiences they expect to be hostile, or when they’re exhausted, or when they’ve got “stranger fatigue” from having had to meet and be friendly for a few minutes with a hundred people already. Obama is not Bill Clinton–he doesn’t usually really feed off crowds. My reasons for thinking Obama isn’t an empty shirt have to do with references I have on him from people who’ve worked with him on demanding projects over the space of months. On the basis of good evidence, he’s bright, ethical, and “chilled/cool”–the thing that makes him stand out, in a room full of brilliant, energetic people, is that his friendly, mindful reservedness never breaks. He didn’t get picked for Harvard Law Review editor because he was the best at arcane facts or rapid-fire logical repartee; he got picked because he managed to listen to everyone on opposite sides of extremely acrimonious debates in the middle of a culture war on Harvard campus–he was picked for his priestliness, not his skills as a debate artist. To me, none of this fits with “empty shirt” at all.

I got an hour, one-on-one with Senator Mike Gravel, who was also running for President in December 2007, and who was the Senator who read the Pentagon papers into the senate record back during the Vietnam war. Senator Gravel was an “empty suit” if you watched his advertisements (he literally threw a rock into a pond and then just looked at the camera, for a full thirty-second ad), but with an hour to warm up to me and become sure of his audience, we eventually (well after the first 5 minutes) had a free-wheeling conversation touching free speech, the weird way that monotheistic religion connects to language (Bible verse: “in the beginning was the word”), the fact that Richard Nixon supported single-payer healthcare, and tried to pass it into law and even,–I’m not shitting you–the weird way that different professors of ours in college have very different opinions of our level of smarts. He had some profs who thought he was brilliant, but his favorite professor, when asked (Gravel was briefly a national sensation when he was doing his Pentagon papers thing), held his hand flat and let it waiver at about chin level and said, “Gravel, eh? He’s about average.” In late 2007, Gravel wanted a national referendum process, which marked him as a fringe candidate, and for the first five minutes I had with him one-on-one, it was hard to get anything real from him… but he most definitely wasn’t an empty suit. In 2007, by comparison with Senator Gravel, Obama was pretty clearly the smarter, harder working, and more disciplined of the two. There’s just no way he’s an “empty suit.”

If we’d gotten to talking trade policy and why Trump trying to start trade wars seems dumb to me, I’d point at Smoot-Hawley, and how trade policy is something you do carefully–not by riling up both countries by calling people “weak” or saying this-or-that country is our “enemy” or otherwise pushing for protectionism. See this: https://www.theguardian.com/…/smoot-hawley-tariffs…

I’m inclined to think we won’t have a very productive conversation, but if you want to offer a response, or share a couple links of your own, I’m happy to read what you offer. The fact is, a lot of great ideas come from both sides–see Nixon creating the EPA, for example. Thanks for engaging–there really is far too little discussion between thoughtful people on opposite sides of issues these days.

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