If you have not done so, I highly recommend reading or viewing President Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. While reading Doonesbury that last couple of days, I get the sense that some found it shockingly bellicose, a paean in favor war and not a song of peace. (Of course, I suspect that Doonesbury mocks those thoughts, but in any event, some must hold them.) Didn't anyone pay attention to Obama during the campaign when he reported that Reinhold Niebuhr was a favorite "philosopher"? (BTW, John McCain said the same thing; however, having heard McCain, I have some doubt that he actually read Niebuhr, and certainly he did not grasp Niebuhr's message.) Obama obviously had read his Niebuhr, perhaps even some of the fountainhead of Niebuhr's Christian realism, St. Augustine. In any event, what Obama set forth seems very Niebuhr-esque to me.
To get a further sense of Obama's thinking, read David Brooks on Obama and Niebuhr. As usual, he has insightful things to say about the two. His most recent column on this subjec calls Obama's speech the most important of Obama's life. In an earlier column (in 2007), Brooks asked Obama if Obama had read Niebuhr, and Obama enthusiastically replied that Niebuhr "was one of his favorite philosophers." Brooks goes on to report that Obama provided a succinct summary of Niebuhr's thought that Brooks identified as pretty much the thesis of Niebuhr's The Irony of American History (1952). This sent me back to read this book, as I've owned it for years but I had never read it. Shame on me! It proved vintage Niebuhr, and given that Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)is one of my favorites, this should not surprise me. I highly recommend both, and more to come on Irony.
Two quick points while doing some of the research for this post:
- Brooks, and others, often mention George Kennan when discussing Niebuhr, and I see a strong connection. I also consider Kennan a hero.
- The late John Patrick Diggins, one of my favorite historians, nearly had completed a work on Niebuhr before his death. I hope it gets published, as Diggins would prove as good a commentator on Niebuhr as anyone that I can imagine.