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Wednesday
Oct282009

Obama, Caesar, and Politician Authors

Here are two quotes—their relation will be obvious. The first is from NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman from a speech he gave last week. The second is from Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind. Kirk (1918-1994) was a political theorist and preeminent American conservative.

"This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar."

- Rocco Landesman, “We Know Art Works.” National Endowment for the Arts. Oct 21, 2009. http://www.arts.gov/artworks/?p=13.

"As the power of centralized government increases, political leaders—immersed in administrative duties of increasing complexity and bound to ceremonial duties—have less time for reflection. The last American president to do his own thinking was Herbert Hoover; the last British prime minister of intellectual distinction was Arthur Balfour. So it is that when one discusses social thought in recent decades one rarely turns to those who occupy high political office: the ideas expressed by those men are put into their heads by others, and their very words ordinarily come from the typewriters of anonymous or quasi-anonymous members of their staffs—who, in turn, often echo the phrases of influential publicists or scholars."

- Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, Seventh Revised Edition, (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2001) 475.  

The enormous reach by Landesman has been well ridiculed, as have the inaccuracies in his statement (Lincoln wrote brilliantly, but never published a book). The statement is hyperbolic and partisan. But there is a larger point here that is important.

Books published by prominent politicians are usually ghost-written, vain, and often terrible. To his credit, Obama is a talented writer and his two memoirs are much better products than are usually put out by politicians. For Kirk, though, modern politicians have a low ceiling as writers because they are simply too occupied in the administrative duties of big government to have time to reflect and write an excellent product. As such, they rely on superficial, self-serving content and let others to do the actual writing.

Obama is likely the best writer to occupy the White House in several terms. But that does not warrant catapulting him to the top of two thousand years of literature.

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