There’s all kind of reasons why Elizabeth Warren probably won’t be president, and Claire McCaskill, her former colleague in the U.S. Senate, thinks she knows the reason why. Mrs. Warren, says Mrs. McCaskill, struggles with being “in command of policy” and still being “relatable.”
This boils down to the ancient and unhappy reality, says Colleen Flaherty in the online academic journal Inside Higher Ed, that “assert yourself as a man and you’re seen as a boss, yet assert yourself as a woman, and you’re seen as bossy.”
But maybe there’s something else afoot. Professors coast to coast have taken criticism of Mrs. Warren, who is something particularly grand called “the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law emerita” at Harvard, as a put-down of the idea that a professor could make a good president.
That’s exactly Mrs. McCaskill’s point. “Frankly,” she said of Elizabeth Warren, “sometimes she comes very close to that professor I just wanted to be quiet.”
Mrs. McCaskill has been a fan of Joe Biden in the past, and maybe still is, and other professors have glumly concluded that Mrs. McCaskill may be on to an important home truth. Professors, like lawyers, are often the butt of jokes cracked by the unwashed and the honors graduates of the University of Hard Knocks. (The College of Hard Knocks, even though it doesn’t really exist, has moved up to university status from something as lowly as a mere college. Grade inflation is a universal curse.) Nevertheless, a lot of our presidents — as many as 11 or 12 if them, if you count part-time gigs in law schools — were once professors. In most cases, only temporarily, while they were on the scout for a public office to pursue.
Woodrow Wilson was not only a professor at Princeton, but became the president of the university. But his education really started only when he was elected governor of New Jersey. Barack Obama was a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, where he was what the newspapers called “aloof and cerebral,” as most people imagine all professors to be. Bill Clinton taught law classes at the University of Arkansas, where the co-eds were pretty and plentiful (several have been crowned Miss America) and Bubba has always had an eye for something more interesting than writs and torts, perhaps a tart on a good day.
But it’s true that professors with a yen for office sometimes try to keep their advanced book learning to themselves. Bubba often played down his years at Yale and as a Rhodes Scholar, and behaved more like a good ol’ boy from Hot Springs High. Tom Nichols, a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and author of “The Death of Expertise, the Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters,” says the applied adjective of “professorial” is not usually a compliment.
To most people, he says, a professor means a “long-winded gasbag pontificating on things that don’t have a lot of relevance to the ordinary person.” Politics, on the other hand, “requires connection with a spectrum of people, not the ones that have self-selected to sit in your classroom. Unlike your students, they don’t have to listen to you, and you have no ability to make them let you finish a thought.” No matter how educated you might be, voters hate people who come across as superior or better educated, or “knowing more.” He observes that Elizabeth Warren, aware of all that, has been known to “start dropping her ‘g’ and tryin’ to sound like ordinary folks.”
Professors are not popular guests on television, one well-known anchorman says, because professors talk in long paragraphs and answer the question they prefer and not the question they were actually asked. Politicians do this, too, but usually in folk English. Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois who lost two presidential races to Dwight D. Eisenhower, was one of the most intellectual candidates since the founding, and might have been the model for the respectful insult “egghead,” but he failed as the man who thinks too much.
Some professors think their ilk is getting a bad rap because critics mistake being prepared for knowing too much, that there’s something inherent in being a professor that makes someone less “relatable.” Dan Hirschman, a professor of sociology at Brown University, tells Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed that at their best professors are “passionate, dynamic, engaging and skilled at translating difficult and complex topics into something understandable by whatever audience they are speaking to.”
But such professors, presumably found only at the University of Utopia, keep such opinions of themselves safely under wraps. Only Donald Trump (Fordham, University of Pennsylvania) could get by with talking about himself like that.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.