Paging Saul Bellow.

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Obama's Sly Dig at Conservative Intellectual Decline

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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You have to admire the multi-level trolling by President Barack Obama. Obama will speak on Thursday at the University of Chicago law school, where he taught in the 1990s. While he’s at the university, he’ll give an interview to Fox News. The law school discussion is targeted at Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and his obstruction of Obama’s Supreme Court nomination. The interview is an assault on contemporary American conservatism.

The Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, is the proximate cause of Obama’s visit. “We are going to continue to make the case to Republicans in the United States Senate that they should fulfill their constitutional responsibility,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “The president will certainly make that case.”

But Obama, by returning to his old law school to discuss the court and constitutional law, isn’t content merely to kick Senate Republicans in the shins for their obstruction of the Garland nomination. In some respects, the Fox News interview on the university’s campus is even more of a dig at opponents. It’s Obama’s first interview with “Fox News Sunday” since being elected president, and his first with the generally hostile network since 2014.

The setting is rich. The University of Chicago is a special place for conservatism. The free-market theorist Milton Friedman spent much of his career there, and the university became tightly associated with his ideas and other conservative offspring, such as the Law and Economics school.

In addition, major 20th-century conservative thinkers, including the philosopher Leo Strauss and novelist Saul Bellow, are closely identified with the university. Another conservative icon, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whom Garland has been nominated to replace, taught at the law school.

Obama’s setting for the Fox interview juxtaposes conservatism’s intellectually hefty past -- Friedman, Strauss, Bellow, Scalia -- and its shallow, partisan present. Has there been a more powerful influence on conservative thought in the Obama era than Fox News? If the president wanted to make a sly commentary on the decline of the intellectual culture of the right, he could hardly do better.

Fox anchor Chris Wallace, of course, is many cuts above the average fare of his network. And Megyn Kelly has risen to prove herself a formidable television journalist during this presidential campaign. But they are notable exceptions.

Conservatives, led by their preferred news network, have waged unrelenting war on Obama’s legitimacy. By inviting Fox into the imposing stone campus of the University of Chicago, and holding forth on the Supreme Court at the university’s famous law school, Obama is raising some pretty obvious questions about the legitimacy of his foes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net