This piece originally appeared in my column for Huffington Post on November 30, 2013.
George Will proved once again in a recent column that he is perhaps the most intellectually dishonest “intellectual” in a city awash with intellectual dishonesty. Not content to make obvious arguments about the administration’s problems implementing the Affordable Care Act — nee Obamacare — Will veers into the ridiculous for almost the entirety of the column.
Claim No. 1: Will refers to healthcare reform as Obama’s “singular — actually, his single — achievement” in office. Off the top of my head, a few other obvious achievements come to mind: the Recovery Act, saving GM and Chrysler from extinction, financial regulatory reform, and ending the war in Iraq.
Rachel Maddow recites a lengthy list here in 2010:
And again here in 2012:
Or you could just Google “Obama accomplishments,” and the first hit will be this list of “Obama’s Top 50 Accomplishments” from Washington Monthly in 2012. (Healthcare reform was No. 1 on that list, but the magazine managed to scrounge up 49 others. Including one I almost forgot: No. 6 “Eliminated Osama bin Laden.”
That’s a rather lengthy list of significant accomplishments. There’s room to disagree on the significance of some of the more marginal accomplishments, but the claim that healthcare reform is Obama’s “singular — actually, his single — achievement” is laughable.
Claim No. 2: The Obama administration “is in a perpetual swivet stoked by media for which every inter-institutional dust-up is a crisis.” As evidence for this swivet — “a fluster or panic,” according to Oxford American and an unnecessarily nerdy word according to me — Will cites the fiscal cliff, the sequester and the government shutdown.
The implication is that Obama somehow caused those things to happen and/or has unfairly benefitted from media characterization as consequential president because they happened. Will wears a bowtie and uses words like “swivet,” so I assume he knows the House Republicans almost single-handedly caused the fiscal cliff, the sequester and the government shutdown.
Claim No. 3: As further evidence that Obama has not really dealt with anything important, Will notes that the Great Depression was a crisis and Pearl Harbor was a crisis but that internecine disputes between the executive and legislative branches are not a crisis because they are function of separation of powers. True but, you know, the Great Recession was a crisis, wasn’t it?
This is a classic device for practitioners of intellectual dishonesty. You establish a premise (Obama has had it easy), you cite evidence that supports your argument (the fiscal cliff, the sequester and the government shutdown weren’t crises), and you omit evidence that does not support your argument (the Great Recession was a BFD, and Obama came out of it OK). The intellectual dishonesty is knowing the evidence against your (weak-ass) argument and ignoring it rather than copping to it and giving it a fair evaluation.
Claim No. 4: The major premise of Will’s piece is that this quote from Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett in David Remnick’s book The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama…
He knows exactly how smart he is. … I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. … He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do. He would never be satisfied with what ordinary people do.
… is “the place to begin understanding the unraveling of his presidency.”
Will plays this as anecdotal evidence that Obama is too smug and self-assured to take advice from anyone, which is not a fair inference to take from the Jarrett quote insofar as it’s not actually true. He doesn’t cite any examples.
(The right-wing press has been trotting this quote out a lot lately — National Review, American Spectator, American Thinker, Washington Times, etc. — so Will is likely cribbing lazily from his own nightstand in addition to feeding the meme machine of Obama Is an Aloof Elitist.)
Here’s the uncut version from the book, which was published in 2010:
“I think Barack knew that he had God-given talents that were extraordinary. He knows exactly how smart he is. … He knows how perceptive he is. He knows what a good reader of people he is. And he knows that he has the ability — the extraordinary, uncanny ability — to take a thousand different perspectives, digest them, and make sense out of them, and I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually. I mean, he’s the kind of guy you’d hate in law school, who would pick up his book the night before the final, read it, and ace the test. So what I sensed in him was not just a restless spirit but somebody with such extraordinary talents that they had to be really taxed in order for him to be happy.” Jarrett was quite sure that one of the few things that truly engaged him fully before going to the White House was writing Dreams from My Father. “He’s been bored to death his whole life,” she said. “He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do. He would never be satisfied with what ordinary people do.”
Remnick does not say in the notes to The Bridge when Jarrett gave him the quote, but it wasn’t recently — the book was published in April 2010 — and it wasn’t in the context of Obama’s presidency. The fairer reading of the quote is that Jarrett saw Obama as ambitious, intelligent, and a good synthesizer of facts, all of which strike me as something most people would want in a president.
I offer this not as a defense of Obama in general or the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in particular but as an illustration that George Will is a lazy, partisan hack and not the analytical intellectual he fashions himself to be.