Sunday, November 09, 2008

Obama: Balancing Heart and Mind

At his press conference Friday, the President-Elect said he was rereading Lincoln for "inspiration," but he may also want to take another look at David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest."

Like JFK, Barack Obama values brains, but Halberstam's book might inspire him to be wary of the hubris that can blindside academic brilliance without accompanying insight into the realities of human behavior, as it did with Kennedy's overachievers who went on to bring down LBJ with their tunnel vision of the Vietnam war.

Obama has shown the self-awareness and empathy--some call it "emotional intelligence"--needed for leadership but, in overturning all the clich├ęs about "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," the real test will come in creating and managing a government with all those qualities.

"The second most remarkable thing about his election," Nicholas Kristof writes, "is that American voters have just picked a president who is an open, out-of-the-closet, practicing intellectual...

"Smart and educated leadership is no panacea, but we’ve seen recently that the converse—a White House that scorns expertise and shrugs at nuance—doesn’t get very far either."

But, Kristof adds, "It doesn’t help that intellectuals are often as full of themselves as of ideas."

The 1972 look back at Vietnam took its scathing "Best and Brightest" title from Kennedy's so-called "whiz kids," thinkers from industry and academia such as Robert McNamara and the Bundy brothers, whom Halberstam characterized as arrogantly insisting on "brilliant policies that defied common sense" in the Vietnam quagmire.

(For his pains, a new report shows Halberstam was closely tracked by the FBI for two decades, another sign that too much thinking of any kind is suspect in American politics.)

Obama's Illinois predecessor, Adlai Stevenson, who lost the presidency twice half a century ago being labeled an unworldly "egghead," observed, “The hardest thing about any campaign is how to win without proving you’re unworthy of winning.”

The President-Elect has cleared that hurdle and now faces the higher leap into governing with a winning balance of heart and mind.

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