You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Mere Smear

The Compact Oxford Dictionary of Current English offers several definitions of the word "smear." One is "coat or mark with a greasy or sticky substance." Another is "damage the reputation of [someone] by false accusations." Neither of these definitions perfectly fits Sean Wilentz' discussion of Barack Obama and his supporters, published on The New Republic's website last week. But Wilentz has certainly produced a smear.

Wilentz does deserve considerable credit--this is one impressive smear. Saying nothing about Obama's career or positions, Wilentz announces that there is a "delusional style" in American political punditry, typified by support for inexperienced, unqualified candidates on the basis of the delusional belief that those candidates have good "instincts." In Wilentz' view, the presidential candidacy of George W. Bush was merely the latest beneficiary of the delusional style.

Is Wilentz actually trying to make a claim about American history? Or about American journalism? Sure, American political commentary has had its fair share of delusions, but the idea of a general "delusional style" is much too vague and abstract to be illuminating. There is no such "style" in American politics. (Wilentz is playing here on Richard Hofstader's illuminating, substantive, and influential 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics.") Wilentz is right to say that some members of the press were excessively generous to Bush's candidacy, perhaps because they preferred him to the not-terribly-fun Al Gore. Many of Bush's supporters, in the press and elsewhere, have been disappointed, but they were hardly deluded.

But Wilentz's real goal is not to act as some kind of press ombudsman, or to identify a previously unrecognized "style" in campaign reportage. It is to condemn the (hardly unanimous) press support for Barack Obama, who turns out, astonishingly, to be the new George W. Bush. An enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton, Wilentz thinks that The Boston Globe editorial board, David Brooks, and Fareed Zakaria (among others) support Obama not on the basis of reason, but because of "nothing more than enthusiasm, based on feelings and projections that are unattached to verifiable rational explanation or the public record." In Wilentz' account, the delusional "Obama-awed commentators" have failed to learn the true lesson of the Bush Administration, which is that the last time America opted for intuition-based governance, it produced a "catastrophic presidency."

Wilentz contends that Obama's supporters like him because of his "good vibes" (ouch!) and their belief in the power and virtue of his "intuition." Notwithstanding some snippets of writing that Wilentz removes from context, that's a ludicrous contention. The editors of the Globe, among Wilentz's special targets, invoke not "good vibes" in their endorsement of Obama, but the public record, including his support for merit pay for teachers; his work with Republican Richard Lugar to add conventional weapons to the nation's threat reduction initiative; his work in Illinois on campaign ethics; his support for a cap on carbon emissions; and his inclusive approach to health care negotiations.

More generally, and whether this point was given due emphasis by the columnists who so offended Wilentz or not, the fact is that those who support Obama do so for diverse reasons. He opposed the Iraq War before hostilities began--not on the basis of intuition, but after a careful (and entirely prescient) analysis of the likely consequences. Obama is the opposite of a polarizing figure (and maybe we could use that in the White House). He has a keen and sympathetic understanding of competing positions. He is a Democrat who actually understands economics and the needs of business. He has a stunning intelligence (and maybe we could use that in the White House). He promises to go beyond the decreasingly relevant conflicts of the 1960s and the 1990s. He is a specialist in constitutional law (and maybe we could use that in the White House). On issues ranging from health care to climate change, his policy proposals are careful and pragmatic.

Wilentz is not content to accuse Obama's supporters of having lost their grip on reality. It turns out that their candidate is not merely a neophyte but also dishonest. The reason? His autobiography, Dreams from My Father, "contains composite characters and other fictionalized elements--not exactly a portrait of sterling honesty or authenticity." This sentence gives Wilentz's game away. Obama's moving and unusually self-revelatory book is hardly rendered dishonest or inauthentic by his decision not to use real names and to offer some composite characters when describing friends and situations from his youth.

Of course reasonable questions have been raised about Obama's candidacy. Many responsible people believe that some other candidate would be a better president. But having failed to show that the pundits who support Obama are deluded, Wilentz offers no reason to reject the arguments that they actually offer. And it is not so reasonable to manufacture, evidently for the occasion, something called a "delusional style" in American political history, and to accuse supporters of Barack Obama of having taken leave of their senses. Wilentz is a distinguished historian. I can't imagine what got into him.

Cass R. Sunstein is a contributing editor at The New Republic and teaches at the University of Chicago. Over the years, he has offered informal advice to both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama; a long-term law school colleague of the latter, he has acted as an occasional, informal adviser to his campaign.

By Cass R. Sunstein