Obama, Kennedy, and the Neurology of Reason

Listening to President Obama's elegant eulogy for Ted Kennedy on Saturday, I was struck by the differences between the two great orators, and also by the epic struggle Obama is facing right now in trying to advance their shared ideals. 

Kennedy was a lion. It was his great roar of passion that so often won over constituents and colleagues. 

Obama is a famously cool cat. While sharing many of Kennedy's political goals, his oratory is built on reason and clarity. He employs low-voltage words that aim to stimulate our frontal cortex, the part of our brain that considers, compares, and calculates what's best for our future. Obama obviously believes deeply in the power of this rational oratory, and with the help of his extraordinary chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, has turned precision and clarity into an art form.

From his Kennedy eulogy:

We cannot know for certain how long we have here. We cannot foresee the trials or misfortunes that will test us along the way. We cannot know God's plan for us. What we can do is to live out our lives as best we can with purpose, and love, and joy. We can use each day to show those who are closest to us how much we care about them, and treat others with the kindness and respect that we wish for ourselves. We can learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. And we can strive at all costs to make a better world, so that someday, if we are blessed with the chance to look back on our time here, we can know that we spent it well; that we made a difference; that our fleeting presence had a lasting impact on the lives of other human beings.


While he was seen by his fiercest critics as a partisan lightning rod, that is not the prism through which Ted Kennedy saw the world, nor was it the prism through which his colleagues saw him. He was a product of an age when the joy and nobility of politics prevented differences of party and philosophy from becoming barriers to cooperation and mutual respect -- a time when adversaries still saw each other as patriots.

Clearly Obama wants to recapture this spirit, and drag our nation back to a renewed Era of Civility and Reason. 

Unfortunately, what he's discovered this summer is that Civility and Reason are quite easy to short-circuit. Some of Obama's win-at-all-cost opponents seem to have perfected their technique: convince people that their nation is in mortal danger, that our free society is being undermined by a racist, socialist, usurper. Once you've activated the fear module of the brain (the amygdala), there's little room left for logic, reason, rationality. 

(Before the anti-Obamites jump all over this, allow me to make the case that one does not have to agree with Obama's specific political goals to be worried about the birthers and the town-hall intimidators. Rationality is something we should all desperately desire, and is dear to all well-meaning conservatives that I know.)

Obama's task now is to figure out how to short-circuit the short-circuiters. If he can't, health care reform won't be the only casualty. We'll lose a real opportunity to elevate our politics and our culture. 

Can he and Favreau pull this off? Or do we need another roaring lion to stand-up to these people? 
Presented by

David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

From This Author

Just In