When selecting a leader, the European electorate tends to vote for the smartest guy in the room.
In the U.S., it tends to vote for the guy it would most like to have a beer with.
Europe, of course, has a history of valuing intellectualism above all when it comes to its political class. The American equivalent, I would venture to say, is pragmatism. One attribute isn’t necessarily superior to the other, but both have defined the leadership (and cultural) styles of their respective continents.
If we look at the current and former U.S. Presidents, those contrasts couldn’t be starker. Even though Mr. Obama isn’t European, a childhood spent abroad gives him a solid international frame of reference, and arguably, a more analytical outlook – especially when compared to his predecessor’s reported lack of intellectual curiosity.
In a Vanity Fair excerpt of a new biography called Barack Obama: The Story, author David Maraniss examines Obama’s student years in New York City. While a former girlfriend’s detailed account of their relationship is picking up quite a bit of attention (the future Prez wearing a sarong while doing the NY Times crosswords puzzle bare-chested, for example), what struck me most is not only his quest for self-definition but also his deep interest in literature. Maraniss reprints part of a letter Obama wrote in which he dissects T.S. Eliot’s seminal poem, The Waste Land.
His analysis is pretty revealing. Beyond what it says specifically about the poem, it reads like what you’d expect a piece of literary criticism to read like. It’s trenchant, involved and at times bombastic. We can already glimpse the future college professor from it.
The fact that “literary riffs” fill the pages of Obama’s journals (he also writes about William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound) is surprising. I would have taken his “smarts” to be more like those of a lawyer rather than those of a textbook “intellectual” into the arts.
Although his early personal letters confirm that he’s endowed with a vivacious, formidable intellect, I’m not certain that would be reason enough for most Americans (outside of the two coasts) to want to have a beer with him…unless, of course, they’re writers like me.