The unkindest, most unsurprising October surprise of them all

In Washington parlance an "October surprise" is one of those events cooked up by political skullduggerists to do in an opponent. Usually they involve subterfuge and sometimes deals with evil foreigners. Of course, "October surprise" has become something of an oxymoron — given the sorry state of political affairs in the United States there is ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

In Washington parlance an "October surprise" is one of those events cooked up by political skullduggerists to do in an opponent. Usually they involve subterfuge and sometimes deals with evil foreigners.

Of course, "October surprise" has become something of an oxymoron -- given the sorry state of political affairs in the United States there is hardly any attack that can be imagined that hasn't already been tried. Still, the latest attack on President Barack Obama … who is not even running this year … is an especially low blow.

First, there is the source of the attack: the New York Times. The Times, what with its fuzzyheaded, eastern liberal reputation and all that, should be the paper most in league with Obamanauts -- who read it as they wake up each morning to their breakfast of green tea, steel cut oatmeal with blueberries and egg white, and asparagus frittatas. (Admittedly, one of the reasons they read the Times is because almost every other newspaper in the United States is either failing or is owned by Rupert Murdoch.) That said, I knew the relationship had deteriorated, what with the Obama White House surprisingly early in their term adopting the Ron Ziegler approach to press relations (paranoia wrapped in resentment cloaked in abuse), and the Times actually covering the news -- even when it was not flattering to the president. But I never expected what I saw today.

In Washington parlance an "October surprise" is one of those events cooked up by political skullduggerists to do in an opponent. Usually they involve subterfuge and sometimes deals with evil foreigners.

Of course, "October surprise" has become something of an oxymoron — given the sorry state of political affairs in the United States there is hardly any attack that can be imagined that hasn’t already been tried. Still, the latest attack on President Barack Obama … who is not even running this year … is an especially low blow.

First, there is the source of the attack: the New York Times. The Times, what with its fuzzyheaded, eastern liberal reputation and all that, should be the paper most in league with Obamanauts — who read it as they wake up each morning to their breakfast of green tea, steel cut oatmeal with blueberries and egg white, and asparagus frittatas. (Admittedly, one of the reasons they read the Times is because almost every other newspaper in the United States is either failing or is owned by Rupert Murdoch.) That said, I knew the relationship had deteriorated, what with the Obama White House surprisingly early in their term adopting the Ron Ziegler approach to press relations (paranoia wrapped in resentment cloaked in abuse), and the Times actually covering the news — even when it was not flattering to the president. But I never expected what I saw today.

There it was, and given the headline, you knew it couldn’t be good: "In Writings of Obama, a Philosophy Is Unearthed." It was ominous on many levels. No good can come of reviewing the scribblings of someone’s past. (People grow, but the words of a less experienced version of one’s self, a version that no longer exists, linger despite.) But worse, there was that word "philosophy." They might as well have said they’d discovered Obama’s birth certificate and it revealed he was French.

The article, seemingly innocuously, told the story of Harvard professor James T. Kloppenberg’s retracing of the intellectual journey that brought the president to where he is today. But within the piece you could see the handiwork of the devil (how has Roger Ailes extended his reach into the inner workings of the Times? It is impossible to fathom. But I guess that’s what makes the devil the devil. He’s that good.) The article featured a series of blows so deft, so sharp, and so damaging that they called to mind one of those cartoon scenes in which a character is sliced to pieces so quickly that he doesn’t know what has hit him, appears unscathed for a second, and then falls to the ground in bits. 

The first slice: Near the top of the story Kloppenberg is said to have reached the conclusion that Obama "is a true intellectual." Couldn’t they have said he lied about his military service? Couldn’t they have said that he forced a woman on her knees to worship the water god in a fraternity prank? Couldn’t they have said that one of his aides called an opponent "a whore"? (Connect the slur to a current race and win a free subscription to this free web site.)

What could be more brutally damaging in the United States than calling someone an intellectual? Surely it will cost him — and by extension Democrats across the country — more votes than having admitted to previously being a witch will cost certain loser Christine O’Donnell. Or to put it in finer focus, certainly being called an intellectual — or worse, being one — is going to cost Barack Obama more votes than being stupid is likely to have cost… or will cost… Sarah Palin.

But it gets worse. Times reporter Patricia Cohen (undoubtedly on the take from the Koch family) writes, "Mr. Kloppenberg explained that he sees Mr. Obama as a kind of philosopher president." Ouch. Go scan the best-seller lists for a philosopher. Or for that matter compare weekly book sales to say, weekly sales of a Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift album. This is Charlie Sheen‘s America folks, Kanye West‘s America, Sharron Angle‘s America. Calling Obama a philosopher is more damaging than anything the birthers could possibly have fabricated (perhaps because in this case it is true).

Worse still, Kloppenberg concluded that Obama is a pragmatist. Now that may not sound so bad on the face of it. It might even sound like what you want in a country rife with problems and torn apart by ideologues. But in philosophy-speak the term refers to a discipline of thinking born in the 19th Century in the Untied States which the Times describes by saying that its proponents believed that, "… chance rather than providence guided human affairs, and that dogged certainty led to violence." Pragmatists "are constantly devising and updating ideas to navigate the world in which they live." Kloppenberg turns the knife further by writing, "It is a philosophy for skeptics, not true believers." Criminy, why don’t they just say he hates Jesus and the flag? This is a country that cares more that people believe in something than it cares what it is they actually believe in. Introspection and reasoned analysis is so weak and Eurosocialist.

Compounding these assaults, the article also quotes another professor as saying "Obama’s academic background seems so similar to ours" (swoosh goes the razor sharp blade) and that Obama was a product of a turbulent period in the intellectual history of U.S. legal thinkers (ding, ding, ding… double inverted oxymoron) that resulted in his embracing something known as "deliberative democracy." Deliberative democracy? Democracy is not about deliberation. It’s about putting your foot on the head of left-wing protestors who dare protest at a right wing rally. It’s about us against them. It’s about reflexive thought-free belief. Worse, this school of legal thinking suggests the founders cared more about "how to advance the common good" than they "did about ensuring freedom." What? That’s gotta be un-American. After all everybody knows the main thing the founders cared about was guaranteeing that everyone had guns, that corporations could decide the outcomes of elections with their money and that Christianity be taught in our schools instead of say, science.

Tracing Obama’s heritage, Tea Party spy Kloppenberg associates Obama with Nietzsche (a favorite of the Nazis), Thoreau (a favorite of Gary Trudeau), and Langston Hughes (a commie). Oh sure, they were all intellectual giants. But let’s keep things in perspective. Kloppenberg cleverly tries to make it look like his studies have actually revealed much that he admires about Obama — comparing him to a handful of great presidents and saying "He has a profound love of America." But by then the damage has been done. Skillfully, devastatingly, by demonstrating that we have a thoughtful, intelligent, well-educated, skeptical, intellectually-curious president, Professor Kloppenberg makes the best case to date why so many Americans feel out of touch with him.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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