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A Reformed Fellowship

Confusing cool for intelligence

As Barack Obama came to national attention as the keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, many were caught up in the aura of the Illinois state senator. He had a presence about him, an ability to deliver his speech, the way he held his head–all of these would draw great crowds at campaign stops and would eventually catapult him into Presidency of the United States.

The one almost universal description of candidate Obama, and now President Obama, has been that he is intelligent. He is widely considered to be more intelligent than almost anyone else in politics, indeed more intelligent than any other man elected to lead this nation. He just has that aura about him.

And I think that helps explain a great deal this fawning over President Obama–his aura. I am really not convinced that he is particularly intelligent. I do not mean he is ignorant, and I certainly do not denigrate him as so many did the younger President Bush. There simply is little hard evidence to support the commonly-held position that he is possessed of lofty intelligence. As far as I know, his grade point averages at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard have not been released. (I recognize that one’s GPA alone does not signify intelligence, but the media made a great deal of President George W. Bush’s GPA.) As President, Mr. Obama has not really done anything that is widely considered brilliant, while he has made some noticeable gaffes that seem to be fairly overlooked by the national media.

I have to ask: What is there about President Obama which brings about this almost universal acclaim of intelligence? In a word, I think it is the “cool” factor. The President is a cool dude. He bounces down the stairs without touching the handrail. His chin is up while he makes a speech. He looks pretty good with a basketball. He just looks cool.

In America, where a large portion of our citizenry swoons over celebrities, there is great difficulty in distinguishing between intelligence and cool. We fawn over actors who are attractive and can play the part of a character before the cameras. We yawn at the scholar backed by serious research who says something that will actually impact the way we live. We are willingly led by what appears to be than by what actually is (cf. John 7:24). We cannot tell the difference between intelligence and cool.