The Clintons and the Obamas: Being smart and learning humility

A common stereotype about Ivy League universities as well as other high prestige ones is that the students are arrogant, even snobby. That can make it difficult to establish “cross-university” friendships and working relationships.

This concept could not have been clearer four years ago as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton finished up their battle for the Democratic nomination for president. Consider the colleges and universities that the Obamas and Clintons attended:

Barack Obama attended Occidental, Columbia, Harvard Law, and taught law at University of Chicago

Michelle Obama attended Princeton

Bill Clinton attended Georgetown, Yale Law and taught law at University of Arkansas

Hillary Clinton attended Wellesley, and Yale Law

Attending outstanding and prestigious universities is not an exclusive bailiwick of Democrats. George W. Bush graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School. Some might question what he learned there, but that’s a subject for another day. I’d love to hear Dan Rather report on that one.

George H.W. Bush attended Yale a generation before his son and did well. He was also an excellent first baseman and major league prospect and at age 90 might do better than the current occupant of that position for the Los Angeles Angels.

Most people would say that the two Obamas and the two Clintons were far more intelligent than the Bushes. However, in 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were competing for the highest office in the land, what normally would be a bond among intelligent people with similar perspectives turned into a battle of insults.

Bill Clinton said on the Charlie Rose Show that then-Senator Obama wasn’t ready to handle the duties of the Oval Office. He pointed out that Obama had served in the Senate for only one year prior to announcing his candidacy for president. In debates, Hillary Clinton sometimes echoed ideas of her husband and Obama said that he didn’t know which Clinton he was running against.

In a debate prior to the New Hampshire Primary, Obama was asked if he liked Hillary Clinton. In a moment of clear weakness and perhaps fatigue, he said, “she’s nice enough.” This clearly hurt him and combined with increase authenticity by Hillary Clinton, she went on to surprise most and win the Granite State.

Perhaps the greatest bitterness was directed towards Obama from Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Terry McAuliffe. This extended beyond the time that Obama had secured enough delegates to secure a majority of delegates for the Denver convention.

However, it was shortly thereafter that maturity prevailed. Hillary Clinton gave a gracious concession speech. Bill Clinton acknowledged that he had said some ill-advised words and fully endorsed Barack Obama. Obama was thankful and warm towards both Clintons. A rumor began that he would nominate Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State, but it was given little credence, particularly since she had a plum job as a U.S. Senator from the state of New York.

However, Barack Obama respected her international acumen; her firmness; and here ability to negotiate. He nominated her to be Secretary of State and she was confirmed by her colleagues in the Senate. Bill Clinton was most grateful; he truly wanted Hillary to advance up the ladder and perhaps one day become president (still an option for 2016).

Bill Clinton has become a close advisor to Barack Obama and they have developed a friendship that includes frequent rounds of golf.

What is important is that these intelligent Democrats chose to put past grievance aside and not only become friends, but to be working partners. Michelle Obama is part of this equation as well, in large part because she is her husband’s number one advisor. Of the four, she may be the most forgiving and forward looking.

The Bushes went to outstanding universities and at least one is highly educated. George H.W. Bush, who lost to Clinton in 1992, has joined with Clinton in humanitarian efforts including responding to the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004. If only his son had listened to him about how to handle Saddam Hussein, we would have a much safer world now and many Iraqis and Americans would not have died in vain.

What’s key is that unlike the father and son, the foursome of the two Clintons and the two Obamas have developed a relationship characterized by soliciting advice and active listening. To reference Rick Santorum, none of the four is a “snob” for having attended outstanding colleges. As frequently is the case, there’s much that Republicans can learn from Democrats. But that requires listening.

Arthur Lieber Arthur Lieber (309 Posts)

Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.


  • Beth

    Typo in paragraph 9 – 2008 (not 2004)

  • Arthur Lieber

     Thanks much!