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Professor in Chief

February 10, 2010

Barack Obama has been called a lot of things since he hit the national stage: Celebrity, elitist and even one who “pals around with terrorists.” But as his poll numbers come back down to earth, and an emboldened conservative movement sharpens its attacks, the label that seems to be sticking to Obama as much as any lately is that of “professor.”

Speaking to Tea Party activists in Nashville last week, Sarah Palin did her part to keep the “professor” dig in circulation.

"They know we're at war, and to win that war we need a commander in chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern,” the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee told a frenzied crowd.

Obama’s years on the University of Chicago’s faculty have proven a double edged sword. While his supporters accept his higher education experience as evidence of a thoughtful pragmatism, the “professor” label has just as easily been used as a bristly brush, painting the president as an out of touch dreamer who formed theories in the Ivory Tower that can’t be translated into concrete policies from the White House.

The attacks on Obama aren’t new to politics, and they reveal longstanding stereotypes about the professoriate that continue to speak to a subsection of the electorate for whom higher education is regarded with skepticism, a number of political thinkers and academics said in interviews.

“When Palin and others describe Obama as professorial in style, they are invoking themes and tropes that have a long history in American politics,” says Neil Gross, an associate professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. “That longstanding tendency in American politics is also in this case being drawn together with an implicit criticism of liberal professors, which really only became a mainstay of conservative discourse in the 1950s.”

A leading voice in that discourse was the late William F. Buckley Jr., who famously opined that he’d “rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Other conservatives took aim at Harvard faculty as well, including Richard Nixon, who derided that pesky special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, as a “fucking Harvard professor,” according to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account in The Final Days.

The use of “professor” as a term of derision may have hit its stride in the 1950s, but it dates back to scolding characterizations of Socrates, according to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguistics professor at the University of California at Berkeley. By the 1940s, Hollywood had cashed in on the stereotype with a film called “Ball of Fire,” which cast Gary Cooper against type as a naïve professor who learns the real ways of the world from a nightclub dancer called Sugarpuss O'Shea. In the political realm, Adlai Stevenson was similarly labeled an “egghead” in his 1950s campaigns for the presidency, Nunberg added.

If the term professor is used in politics, it's seldom a compliment, and instead "implies dry, hectoring, unemotional, self important, all of the negative stereotypes of somebody who is vainly certain of his own superior mental capacities but doesn’t have a human connection,” says Nunberg, author of The Years of Talking Dangerously and a frequent contributor to NPR’s “Fresh Air.”

Obama Mentor sees Race at Play

Watching the “professor Obama” label bandied about again, one of the president’s longtime mentors says he doubts it will gain traction outside of Tea Party rallies. Taken to its logical conclusion, the message just doesn’t make sense, says Charles J. Ogletree, a Harvard professor who has known Obama since he was a law student there.

Photo: The White House

President Obama and his senior advisor David Axelrod listen during a climate change meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House Oct. 14, 2009. While supporters describe Obama as methodical, critics have suggested he's slow to act.

“I think anyone who examines it closely and carefully will see this type of criticism of Obama will ultimately be counterproductive,” Ogletree says. “Do you want to tell your children we don’t want smart people in government?”

Ogletree, founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, says he sees the “professor” label as a thinly veiled attack on Obama’s race. Calling Obama “the professor” walks dangerously close to labeling him “uppity,” a term with racial overtones that has surfaced in the political arena before, Ogletree said. Describing his divisive confirmation hearings as a “circus,” Justice Clarence Thomas called the proceedings “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.…” It is perhaps ironic, then, that Ogletree, who represented Anita Hill when she made harassment allegations against Thomas in 1991, now sees a bit of the “uppity” label being placed on Obama.

“The idea is that he’s not one of us,” Ogletree says of the professor label. “He has these ideas that are left wing, that are socialist, that he’s palling around with terrorists -- those were buzzwords, but the reality was they were looking at this president as an African American who was out of place.”

Thomas L. Haskell, a professor emeritus of history at Rice University, agrees that racial bias may be implicit in the attack on Obama’s professorial past.

“For me and a lot of other academic types, we identify with Obama precisely because he is an intellectual,” Haskell says. “But what does that mean to John Q. Public? I don’t know. John Q. Public may be frightened of these people, especially because this particular intellectual is a black.”

Attacks on the professoriate or intellectuals in general, however, are certainly not limited to African Americans. The late Richard Hofstadter, a historian at Columbia University, explored such attacks in his 1963 book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. David S. Brown, author of Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (University of Chicago Press, 2006), says Hofstadter would probably see shades of Barry Goldwater’s brand of conservatism among the Tea Party activists.

It’s no surprise that the anti-intellectualism that Hofstadter wrote about has resonance among some Americans today, says Brown, a historian at Elizabethtown College. Higher education programs are increasingly moving toward the pre-professional variety, and students and parents are inclined to press colleges about how their programs will lead to jobs -- not to intellectual growth, Brown says. In that context, the stereotypical liberal arts professor is ever more marginalized.

“A traditional humanities professor is going to be engaged in criticism and speculative ideas, and will probably have more questions than answers,” says Brown. “But we’re a culture that wants answers.”

And wants them fast. Some of the harshest critics of Obama’s professorial style have come at moments in his presidency when he appeared slow to act, giving rise to former Vice President Dick Cheney’s suggestion that Obama was “dithering” while deciding on troop levels in Afghanistan.

Academe Criticized in New York Congressional Race

Obama isn’t the only modern Democrat to see his higher education credentials derided as handicaps. Campaigning for reelection to represent New York’s First Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop has taken shots for the 29 years he spent as an administrator at Southampton College. Bishop said he’s faced such criticism periodically throughout his public life, and his Republican opponent, Randy Altschuler, revived the anti-academic charge in a press release last month.

"When it comes to creating jobs, Congressman Bishop has three strikes against him. He's an academic, a career politician and someone who walks lockstep with the high tax policies of Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama,” the release noted.

Bishop, who served as Southhampton’s provost, says in an interview that he’s baffled but not terribly surprised to see his opponent take such a tack.

“[This press release] comes from an individual with an undergraduate degree from Princeton, a graduate degree from Harvard and a Fulbright scholar, but he is being derisive of me being an academic,” Bishop says.

“I think the term academic is often used interchangeably with elitist, so there is this notion that if one is well educated that that person is also an elitist and therefore out of touch with the concerns that everyday people have, as if people who are well educated aren’t everyday people,” he adds. “I also think the term academic is used derisively as a means of burnishing one’s populist credentials.”

A spokesman for Altschuler said the press release was meant to point out that Bishop lacks experience in producing private sector jobs.

“I think Congressman Bishop is out of touch, because he’s never had to personally make a payroll,” says Rob Ryan, Altschuler’s senior communications adviser. “He’s never personally had to see that his employees’ insurance is paid for. He’s never had to make those hard decisions that the private sector has to make. He’s always playing with someone else’s money.”

That argument is also not new to campaigning, says Gross, who has researched public views of academe.

"The idea that politicians are to be vaunted for their practical skills as decision makers and effective managers and so on, and that their alleged intellectualism is a drawback, is a very longstanding theme in American political discourse," he says. "You can find echoes of that in various campaigns and debates over the course of the 20th century, and even earlier."

 

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