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Dr. Jim Taylor Headshot

White House Geek Is Chic

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Machismo is out and nerdiness is in in the hallowed halls of the White House. I realized this when Peter Orszag, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and the so-called "money geek," got some big press for his engagement to Bianca Golodryga, a universally declared "hottie" financial reporter for ABC News.

Oh, how the culture of the White House has changed from the Bush administration to Obama's. During Bush's reign, the White House reeked of machismo. The highest level of the Bush White House was comprised of a veritable triumvirate of Village People ("Macho, Macho Man"). Of course, former President Bush did his best to appear macho, whether clearing brush on his ranch (he actually grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and was educated in the toniest private schools in New England and Texas), trying to be an athlete with his running and mountain biking (he was actually a cheerleader in high school and college, no offense to cheerleaders), and his Clint Eastwoodesque declarations ("Bring it on," "Mission accomplished," "Dead or alive"). There was former Vice President Dick Cheney, with his Dr. Evil scowl, his aggressive stance toward military intervention (despite receiving five draft deferments; "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service") and ongoing and harsh criticisms of the current administration's "weak" approach to national security. And, finally, Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense, who actually was pretty macho, a Boy Scout, a high-school and collegiate wrestler and football player (albeit in the "lightweight" division; irony noted), an aviator in the Navy, and possessor of a decidedly manly leadership style.

Then, in 2008, the White House made a massive cultural shift with the election of Barack Obama. Manly, macho, masculine men were out and geek was chic. This change was led by the Nerd-in-Chief himself who, despite his ability to take it to the hoop, is more policy wonk than saber rattler, more deliberator than agitator, more tortoise than hare. And President Obama has surrounded himself with like-minded men and women. There's Vice President Joe Biden, who has never met a discussion that couldn't be made longer and more convoluted. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who if she wasn't a woman, would be wearing taped-up eyeglasses and a pocket protector. Finally, we have the aforementioned Peter Orzag, who Huffington Post readers voted the sexiest man in the White House.

This discussion of the differences between the two White Houses is not just a slightly snarky comparison of the two Presidents' and their administrations' styles: heart vs. mind, fire vs. ice, gut vs. cortex. It also demonstrates that, despite the protestations of liberals, the geek set is not immune to making stupid mistakes. At the same time, despite the protestations of conservatives, the new administration hasn't reached the lofty heights of boneheadedness established by the Bushies (though, to be fair, President Obama has three or seven more years to achieve that unparalleled standard depending on how the electoral winds blow in 2012). Nonetheless, as far as making decisions and producing policy goes, the Obama administration, for all of its Ivy League pedigree, has had its share of knucklehead comments, policy pratfalls, and public-relations snafus.

The problem is that even the most intelligent people aren't just driven by reason. And the baggage that the machos and geeks carry, though different, often causes both to act in ways that are both self-destructive and harmful to others. The machos are usually so manly because they are driven by a deep sense of insecurity grounded in the belief that others think they are wimps. So they overcompensate by showing how big their muscles (or other body parts) are and how tough they can be. Thus, their muscular machismic maneuverings prevent the easily intimidated cerebral cortex from exerting influence over decisions. Unfortunately, this behavior can reduce the machos' behavior to a satirical level if the results of their actions weren't so tragic.

The geeks, in turn, have their own issues of overcompensation. Because they were likely picked on when they were young, the geeks learned to offset their lack of physical prowess by flexing the only muscles that they have, namely, their intellectual muscles. Unfortunately, getting straight As in school may lead those who are intellectually gifted to either overestimate the rectitude of their ideas or cause them to overlook ideas from those who don't hold such a lofty cerebral perch. Plus, efforts to demonstrate that the geeks shall inherit the Earth can cause said brainiacs to appear arrogant, condescending, and detached from those who live in Peoria, metaphorically speaking, where intellectual elitism doesn't play well.

Much like Kennedy's "best and brightest," those of the Obama administration have learned the hard way that superior intellect doesn't always win in the hallowed halls of government. Sometimes playing the dumbie (think Gerald Ford) or being the dumbie (think George W. Bush) can get you pretty far.

But, when push comes to shove (metaphorically, not literally, of course), I'm going to put my money on geekiness over machismo because, while the machos usually crash and burn in the end because they don't learn from their mistakes, the geeks are smart enough to figure it out sooner or later and get it right in the end. But I'll admit that, at least with the Obama administration, the jury is still out.

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