Adversity and the Presidency

Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Uses of  Adversity”  reinforces Michael Barone’s argument in Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation’s Future. Gladwell looks at difficulties:  poverty, role as outsider, such handicaps as dyslexia.  And he, too, concludes that hard makes strong.  Gladwell’s rift is inspired by The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs, by Charles Ellis.  Gladwell’s focus is on  the first seventy pages, which follow the ascent of Sidney Weinberg.  Bluffing his way into a janitorial job, Weinberg moves upward to run and enlarge the investment firm.  Language can be telling.  When the United States moved from governing the plural verb “are” to the singular “is”, Lincoln had won, more surely than with Lee’s signature at Appomattox or the golden spike connecting east with west.  Gladwell points to a changed idiom:  “Nowadays, we don’t learn from poverty, we escape from poverty.”  We valued hard; now, easy is default.  Still, our leaders emphasize their trials – McCain’s in the Hanoi Hilton; Obama’s alienation as African-American.  They expect respect for overcoming difficulties; we give it, in part, I suspect, because we still believe that hard does, indeed, make strong. 


[Update:  November 11 – if anyone is still reading this far into our column.]  The ever helpful A&L Daily links to Jason Zengerle’s lengthy piece on Gladwell, Geek Pop Star.  The lengthy portrait discusses his new book, The Outliers.  Zengerle credits Gladwell with the uncontroversial observation that success is not merely personal will but happenstate; this writer seems less impressed by the hardening than reducing the losers damaged in the hardening process. Hard can be good – it can also, of course, debilitate.  It is not an accident or even a surprise to any observer of human nature that a disproportionate number of quite successful businessmen are dyslexic – nor that a disproportionate number of felons are. )

The sixties was change – from the pill box hat of Jackie Kennedy to the bare breasts at Woodstock.   My daughter enjoyed a local production, so Netflixed How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.   We hadn’t seen it when it was released. No wonder, I thought, as the gaudy colors and thin script played out.  Its date was 1967, the year of The GraduateBusiness, well, business was plastic – artificial.  The musical follows Robert Morse’s rise (like Weinberg’s), leapfrogging to the top of a corporation whose product is left ambiguous.  The thinness of the musical prepared us for post-modernism.  A friend lectured another friend’s class on modern critical theory.  He described the insights of his young daughter; visiting her mother’s office, she had ridden the elevator to another floor.  Returning, she could only tell her father it was the same as her mother’s – cubicles, people faxing & Xeroxing, answering phones, tapping at keyboards.  This was a post-modern insight, he told us.  Of course, his daughter’s naiveté matched her father’s – an insight that words are not things themselves but marks on the page.  Sometimes an outsider’s perspective gives a lay of the land someone rooted at its center can not see.  But if we don’t realize that surface is the thinnest of dimensions, we miss out on business, life, and, of course, literature.

A couple who teach with me (and I respect – she has real skill as a writer and he a quiet calm as administrator that reassures) voted for Obama.  The wife explained her husband’s interest in multiculturalism, his hatred of racism; they were thrilled hearing Obama speak in 2004; they’d been primed for this vote.  I share some of their feelings – well, not many, of course.  It is good – for our sense of ourselves, for African-Americans here, for those who use our country as model (even and often while criticizing it)  – that Obama, “the black man” Chavez praises, represents us.  I am more conflicted, however, suspecting some chose him because of color. The often insightful McWhorter thinks Obama lost more; I think he gained more.  Both sides suffer from a lack of imagination – they can’t imagine reasons anyone would vote against Obama but race; I have trouble imagining reasons someone would vote for him except race.  Still, his supporters seem uninterested in discussing position or policy, evidence of character or experience.  His color validated her choice – and her.    Not surprisingly, La Shawn Barber’s take (needing no such validation) is different.  But McWhorter’s training, like my colleagues, emphasizes the symbolic.  Linguists aren’t lit people, but still, they understand the elusive, paradoxical, and deeply felt power of the symbol.  Jung acknowledges such complexity raises passions less susceptible to rationality.  Obama’s attractive image works well as symbol. But in the real world, character is not determined by skin color nor aptitude by race.  In the real world, the kind of widgets sold on the 15th floor are different than those produced on the 10th;  differences are important to those who create, make, buy, use the widgets.  And positions and policies of the leader of the free world have consequences far beyond a voter’s sense of self.  There is more to life than merely not being a bitch.  Hemingway may have gotten it partially right, but shouldn’t we expect more from ourselves than merely proving we aren’t bigots?

We may not be happy.  We may wonder how so many could vote for Obama and are puzzled by the less consequential votes for Murtha and Franken.  Still, our faith in free elections never assumed we were always right or, even when right, would prevail.  The open square tests options; its crowds may be easily moved or short-sighted.  This remains our country.  We are part of a great, indeed, exceptional nation.  And Obama will be our president, his name becoming a part of our grandchildren’s studies. It’s time to suck it up.

As Barone described the election, I thought again of his insights.  In Hard America consequences come quickly.  That America may get knocked down, but it’s resilient and so are its ideas.  Joe the Plumber knows what widgets he makes; we recognize a character not distracted by appearances. Colmes felt he had a closing argument:  Joe will pay fewer taxes under Obama.  Joe looks puzzled; it is, as my freshmen rhetoricians would understand, a matter of assumptions.  Hard America has learned the pitfalls of immediate gratification and suspect it. So, Joe says slowly, that isn’t the point – he’s talking of principle.  Colmes looks uncertain: in his hierarchy, the personal, the tribal, the subjective always trump.  His is soft America.

I’ve come to the party of ideas late.  I wasn’t wise.  I listened far too often to NPR, too long relied on the insights of the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.  My husband, a quieter, smarter, and gentler person, was appalled by the Clarence Thomas hearings.  It took longer to affect his vote; even longer to affect mine.  I accepted Clinton far too long.  He was so obviously from (and acknowledged he was – how could he not?) “white trash.”   My friends point out that is not a virtue.  Still, I thought a man who reached those heights from those depths possessed intelligence, courage, perseverance.  I wasn’t completely wrong.  Of course, it also signals ruthlessness. And in the end my thoughts were not truly generous: they condescended.  I was tripped up by prejudice.  A lack of good manners, such as he often showed, is not always the sign of a rough-edged virtue, but may be explained by hubris.  My faith in “the common man” was insufficiently qualified.  No less susceptible to vice, some remain “white trash” because they overvalue immediacy.  John Adams tells his wife the Declaration of Independence gives “the People” an “unbounded Power.”  Then he notes:  “And the People are extremely addicted to corruption and Venality, as well as the Great.” More wary, I must remember that it is not wise to romanticize the proletariat because crowds possess wisdom.

A man is leaving the White House who had many advantages.  His family was less one of money (they had it, but not in the quantity of many of his opponents), but of lengthy involvement in politics, in Washington. His education was Ivy League, but he chose as wife a Texan.  His vice president left after a semester in the Ivy League.  All three – Laura Bush, Dick and Lynne Cheney – got at least one degree from a public university, most in the tradition of Land Grant schools.  They seemed Washington insiders, but neither the press nor the bureaucracy was captivated by Bush – nor he by them.    How did he present himself – this man who challenged colleagues to reading contests, who married a librarian with a real breadth of learning, this gentle & courtly man?  His image as frat boy – hard drinking, hard partying – defined him long after it was his life.  His shtick was helped by a condescending press and his own awkward speech.  We suspect that he – like Weinberg – saw strategic advantage in “misunderestimation.”  

Gladwell describes the Chinese merchant in Malaysia who appeared most of the month completely assimilated in terms of language, dress, tone.

at harvest time when he would go to the field to collect crops on which he had advanced credit, he would put on his Chinese costume of shorts and undershirt, and speak in a much more abrupt fashion, acting, as one Malay farmer put it, “just like a Chinese.”

Being an outsider has its advantages.  It served Weinberg and the Chinese landlord well.   Bush couldn’t be who he was nor make the decisions he must make and be one of them – the press, the “elites,” the “best and brightest.”  But he was a type they thought they knew:  they dismissed his speeches, his arguments.  They thought they understood.  Because of that they served neither Bush nor their readers well. Now they think they understand Obama – post-racial, post-partisan. 





Obama finds what journalists think they know about him a useful veil.  He enters the White House born of a teen-age mother, moved from country to country and finally left with his grandparents: his partial blackness is the most superficial marker of estrangement.  We are surprised an American, indeed the American president, blinks at the number of states; his identity wasn’t fused with his nationality as happens in those early years – we don’t “learn” such facts, we assimilate them.  Certainly it was a momentary lapse, probably, as he says, brought on by fatigue.  But if that is so, what to many of us is unconscious is conscious with him – his American history is a second language.  Such speakers are often fluent, but soon we will find out if he “thinks” in it.  And we wonder, seeing insecurities beneath the grace:  to deflect attention from himself, he points to the “other.” Often the “other” is older:  in his race speech his grandmother, in his first press conference Nancy Reagan.   And we glimpse an old distaste with commitment when he sees babies as “punishments.”  Romantic, rebellious:  his way hasn’t been soft – but we wonder how hardness tested him, what it hardened.

Without Bush’s history; his quite different attitude toward age is telling.  Clinton might understand but neither Bush nor McCain could.  A father’s expectations may be heavy, but how amorphous is the weight of an absent father’s example.  Much is made of the need for American politicians to be like us – but we want them to transcend, as well.  Since few knew anyone like Obama, he was given free rein.  We would be less likely to cut Bill Ayers slack:  we remember the 60’s; his father was CEO of Con Edison, we’d say.  We know where he is coming from (and most of us don’t like it much).  But in Obama we find our preconceptions at odds: when he assigned grants, maneuvered earmarks & an easier climate for campaigning, he remained different from Ted Stevens or Robert Byrd.  We know where they came from.  For some, the context of his “otherness” permeated any analysis – he remained indecipherable and attractive in that indecipherability.  The press communicated mystery, shrouding even his firmest positions. 

Elected he enters the consequential world; he can’t vote “present.” As outsider, he may see a whole as one immersed cannot.  His campaign persona is distanced, effective, cool.  But now, he needs engagement and sureness:  to laugh at himself, to answer forthrightly and honestly, to act, to live with consequences.  Our form of government requires some transparency from our politicians.  We expect unposed snapshots, unteleprompted responses.  Even if we didn’t, circumstances would demand these of them.  Russia casts an ominous shadow over Lithuania, preachy congratulations from Iran and Syria arrive, unemployment grows, the stock market plunges:  soon these will be his responsibilities.  Bush, in his gentlemanly way, has set in motion a transition to meet Obama’s preparation. We will soon see which onlookers best gauged Obama’s hardness, his character.  I have my doubts, but acknowledge this is not a time to wish to be right.

2 thoughts on “Adversity and the Presidency”

  1. Has anyone read his memoir? It was pretty unreadable from its narcissistic navel gazing, but it doesn’t take much of it see his poor character, mainly complete ingratitude to those who raised him. People can’t say they weren’t warned. If it was ghostwritten, well he did put his name to it.

  2. Sorry, haven’t read it. Respect you for doing so.

    I assume writers of speeches and ghost writers say with skill what is thought by the “author.” I may be wrong; certainly, Weathermen are unlikely to feel gratitude.

    But those who tackle adversity are often by nature grateful – assuming challenge where others see defeat.

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