Rocco’s Modern Life

Rocco Landesman is President Obama’s handpicked chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Last week he gave the keynote address to the 2009 Grantmakers in the Arts Conference. Those of us concerned about the politicization of life and art in the Age of Obama will not be consoled by a reading of Landesman’s speech. The speech bears examination in its entirety, but Landesman’s tribute to Obama is especially worth a look:

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. That has to be good for American artists.

Landesman compares Obama favorably with Julius Caesar as “a powerful writer.” Landesman is not referring to Obama’s skills as a writer, but rather to the power he holds by virtue of his office. Some might think that the literary comparison sells Obama short. Caesar was something of a self-promoter and propagandist in his writing.
Yet Landesman knows Obama is like Caesar, somehow — a friend asks, is it in the transformation of a republic into an empire with a divine ruler? Perhaps if Landesman had his wits about him, he would note instead that Obama is the most powerful speaker since the other JC.
Well, so what if Landesman is a bootlicker? Landesman is also an idiot. Lincoln never wrote a book, although I believe he did compile the texts of his 1858 debates with Douglas for publication in book form. And Landesman misses a few presidential authors since Theodore Roosevelt.
Woodrow Wilson wrote several influential books as a Princeton professor. Herbert Hoover wrote books including, I am reliably advised, a classic book on fishing. Richard Nixon wrote books before and after his presidency. And even Bill Clinton wrote his apologia pro vita sua.
Landesman leaves JFK unmentioned by name. JFK was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage in 1957. My guess is that JFK and Obama share the attribute of authorship in roughly equal measure.
One reader of Landesman’s speech wonders: “Isn’t Obama the first president since Jefferson to more than double the size of the country? The first since Lincoln to free the slavers? The first since FDR to win a war against fascism?” Betraying the spirit of Rocco Landesman, however, the reader injects a note of caution: “I might be wrong. Can any of you fact check that?”
It would be hard to pack so much ignorance into one short paragraph if one were really trying. We can deduce that Landesman doesn’t even have to try.
UPDATE: John Miller notes a few other “powerful writers” missed by Landesman, and one more here.

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