Monday, December 14, 2009

"Smartest Person in the Room"

Watching President Obama on 60 Minutes recalls a memorable exchange from the 1987 movie, "Broadcast News," in which Holly Hunter's boss taunts her, "It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room."

With a stricken expression, she answers, "No. It's awful."

Last night, as he was being pressed by Steve Kroft about the mess in Afghanistan, the President responded, not with dismay but beyond it with a laugh, explaining "this is really hard. And there's not a question that you asked that I haven't asked in meetings, and that I don't ask myself."

His reaction is a reminder of the limitations of brains alone in the life-and-death decisions made in the White House. After eight years of low intellectual expectations, the American people were ready for a renaissance in the coming of what a new Administration calls "smart power," but America's problems are beyond the multiple-choice format of TV quiz shows.

In citing Obama's West Point announcement of the troop escalation, Kroft told him "you seemed very analytical, detached, not emotional. The tone seemed to be, 'I've studied this situation very hard. It's a real mess. The options aren't very good. But we need to go ahead and do this.' There were no exhortations or promises of victory. Why? Why that tone?"

The President disagreed, calling it "the most emotional speech that I've made...I was looking out over a group of cadets, some of whom were going to be deployed in Afghanistan. And potentially some might not come back. There is not a speech that I've made that hit me in the gut as much as that speech."

That kind of decision, Barack Obama was reminding us, has to be made not just by a president who is "the smartest person in the room" about today's pluses and minuses but who has the reserves of emotional intelligence and moral imagination to absorb what it will mean for the future.

Just being smarter and more humane than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney is setting the bar too low.

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