Barack Obama and the Intellectual as President

Michael Tomasky in Democracy:

ScreenHunter_1608 Jan. 08 22.04One of the most fascinating little documents of the Obama era, at least for a certain subset of us, is out there now under dissection by Columbia University professor Edward Mendelson and The New York Review of Books. It’s nothing to do with ISIS or the election or gun policy. It’s a letter Obama wrote to a college girlfriend about T.S. Eliot, and it transported me back in time to the Barack Obama of 2008 in a way that nothing has in quite some time—although not, for reasons I’ll explain, quite as merrily as I’d have preferred.

The letter is pretty remarkable. Obama is describing to “Alex” his take on Eliot’s conservatism, which Obama in some ways finds appealing. I’m no Eliot exegete, but I know enough about Eliot’s conservative and even reactionary views to find this a little disturbing. What’s interesting, though, is Obama’s analysis of the basis of Eliot’s conservatism. In prose that toggles back and forth between the labored tones of the undergraduate and something considerably sharper than that, he writes:

Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.)

And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times.

Mendelson interprets this better than I could. “Obama sees that Eliot’s conservatism differs from that of fascist sympathizers who want to impose a new political hierarchy on real-world disorder,” Mendelson writes. “Eliot’s conservatism is instead a tragic, fatalistic vision of a world that cannot be reformed in the way that liberalism hopes to reform it; it is a fallen world that can never repair itself, but needs to be redeemed.”

What’s interesting here to me is not so much Obama’s view of Eliot and what it tells us about his own world view; I hope, and think, that his views on these matters have changed in the last 30 years, although that line about his respecting a certain kind of conservatism rings true all these years later to anyone who read his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, in which he praised conservatism’s respect for tradition and its caution in defenestrating certain old things too heedlessly (this “certain kind of conservatism” that Obama respects is not the kind of conservatism we have in this country today, it should be noted).

More here.