Intellectualism in the Politics of 2004

I’ve watched a (very) little bit of the Democratic Convention this week and have noticed a couple of anonymous literary references. By anonymous, I mean that the quotes were given without citation.

Ted Kennedy made reference to a poem his brothers loved and finished out the reference by saying something to the effect of “as the poet said” and reciting the closing line of Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” What struck me about it was the flourish of saying “as the poet said,” which is sort of an open-armed gesture to the audience, as if to say “here I am, a man saying things intellectual, and I know that you surely know which poet wrote that line, so there’s no need for me to be explicit about it.” This seems a pretty crafty maneuver because it either stands to make audience members feel included and validated as people it’s taken for granted have a sound cultural and literary education or to intimidate audience members into a sort of reverence for the speaker, who, knowing abstruse references like this, must surely be smart enough to be worth listening to.

The other literary reference I noticed was John Kerry’s anonymous reference to a great author (Thomas Wolfe, one of North Carolina’s literary sons, much as Runningmate Edwards is one of North Carolina’s political sons — will flattery win the state for Kerry?) who wrote that “you can’t go home again.” The relevance, of course, is that the convention is in Boston, which Kerry calls home, and he’s glad to be home again. Relevant or not, the reference still stood out to me as a pretty shrewd tactic for positioning Kerry as an intellectual and instilling in undiscerning audience members the feelings either that “this guy respects me enough to think I’ll get this reference, and I like that, so I like him” or that “this guy must be pretty smart because he knows random literary references, so I can trust him to make informed decisions on my behalf.”

I don’t imagine we’ll hear quite the same things from the Bush camp, which I suspect will fall back on the mantra “America is safer now.” Recall that by definition, a mantra is meaningless and is designed to empty the mind.

At the last election, the focus for many Democrats (myself included) seemed to be that Bush was a moron. For Republicans, it was important to tag Gore as a hanger-on to the immoral Clinton administration and as a stodgy, elitist intellectual. To my knowledge, Kerry doesn’t have any skeletons or ties with people or organizations branded immoral. I’m not sure Bush can say the same, though those who favor him would disagree. At any rate, I’m wondering if intellectualism might make another appearance in this election, but as a desireable rather than an untrusted trait.

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