Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wow, He Went to Harvard and He's Not an Elitist?

I've been meaning to comment on this for a couple weeks, and finally got a moment to go back and find the article. Both David Gergen and Ed Rollins seem to find McCain's attempt to paint Obama as "elitist" to be out of whack, if not offensive (in Gergen's view)...
"Here is a man who grew up in a broken home whose father left at a young age and who was raised by a single mother," said David R. Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, who has previously served as a White House adviser to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. "It's an admirable story of rising from rags to riches, one that resonates. In many ways he's a modern Horatio Alger.

"Now the McCain campaign wants to create a dramatically different narrative," Gergen continued. "They want you to see him as a man who went to fancy schools; who has had the beneficiary of an elite life, and is increasingly removed from the mainstream of normal American life. They want to create someone who is 'The Other.' That's what they did for John Kerry. They succeeded in turning his medals of honor in Vietnam into a liability.

"And now the McCain campaign wants to turn Obama's strength into a weakness and make him seem like a celebrity who has nothing to offer but high-blown words.," Gergen continued. "He's obviously not in the same league as Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. They've gone way too far with that. But we've seen where strategies that have been derided by commentators have been effective with voters.

"We've learned from previous campaigns that the effective way to create an alternative story for your rival is the summer before the fall campaign," Gergen noted. "You can but a ball and chain on an opponent and he's going to have a hard time running a race in the fall."

... Like Gergen and Coelho, the pugilist and Republican campaign consultant Ed Rollins, who served as national campaign director for Ronald Reagan's 1984 victory, and more recently the national campaign chairman for Mike Huckabee's Republican primary run, sees no lasting power in the ad.

"It's a nice try," Rollins said, "but he's not an elitist. That's not a sustained campaign tactic. Here was someone who grew up with nothing verses the son of four-star admirals. It's a nice try and a good diversion in the first part of August, but painting him as an elitist is not a winning strategy going into the fall."
We can argue about the long-term effectiveness of the ad another time (for the record, I think it's helpful, but the long-term impact is only helpful in establishing a theme about Obama -- McCain still needs to sell himself). What I want to address is the elitism concept.

Gergen and Rollins seem stuck on the idea that Obama's life story insulates him from charges of elitism, much like (to draw out Gergen's analogy) John Kerry's war record insulated him from charges of being a weak-kneed liberal on foreign policy issues. This would be correct... if elitism is a concept that is determined solely by reference to one's upbringing.

Just because I want to do so, I'm going to reference Caddyshack. Ted Knight's Judge Elihu Smails is a complete snob and elitist, and it's fair to conclude that his background led him to become one. However, Chevy Chase's Ty Webb comes from a pretty privileged background as well -- but he's not an elitist (he's a lazy bum, but he's not an elitist). Background doesn't make you an elitist -- it can help, but ultimately, it comes down to who you are today and how you act. In Obama's case, he may be the opposite of Ty Webb -- he grew up without privilege, but attained a life of privilege through hard work... and possibly became an elitist.

Now, are there facts that would tend to point one toward a conclusion that Obama could be considered an elitist? Sure. He went to an Ivy League institution for his undergraduate education. He went to Harvard Law School for his law degree. He's been a con law professor, so he's an academic. His big money-making endeavor was writing a book about himself. He's a politician with a cult of celebrity around him.

None of this guarantees that Obama is an elitist (well, except the Harvard Law School thing. Everyone who goes there becomes a complete snob). But the reverse is true regarding Obama's upbringing -- simply citing it doesn't insulate him from charges of being an elitist. Put it this way -- if Obama started windsurfing off Cape Cod tomorrow, his upbringing couldn't defend him from the charge that he'd become an elitist. However, if he wants to try and prove me wrong and go windsurfing, he's welcome to do so.


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