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Published: Saturday, 5/24/2008

Not so smart after all?

WHAT should be the theme song for Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign?

Some think it should be Carly Simon's 1972 smash hit, "You're So Vain," (I bet you think this speech is about you).

Most of us have a higher opinion of ourselves than objective circumstances warrant. But in few of us is the gap between how we view ourselves and reality as wide as it is with Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama is a bright, handsome, personable guy who gives a good speech (when he's working from a prepared text). But he's never actually done much of anything. The biggest tic on his resume to date is that he was president of the Harvard Law Review. That's impressive, but not exactly the stuff of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan, guys who could turn a phrase, too. Mr. Obama's self-regard is such that he already has written two autobiographical books.

Little seems to annoy Mr. Obama more than when others do not hold him in as high esteem as he holds himself. He apparently was dozing in the pews when his pastor said America is no better than al-Qaeda and our government created the AIDS virus to exterminate blacks. But his ears perked up when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright implied that he had been insincere in describing their relationship: "That's a show of disrespect to me," Mr. Obama said.

A focus on himself and a hypersensitivity to perceived slights may explain why Mr. Obama thought President Bush was speaking about him when the President denounced appeasement in a speech to the Israeli parliament May 15.

"I understand when you are running for office sometimes you think the world revolves around you," responded White House Press Secretary Dana Perino. "That is not always true, and it is not true in this case."

Mr. Obama's prolonged response to the Knesset speech - one of the largest unforced errors I've seen in politics - suggests another candidate for campaign theme song, Sam Cooke's 1960 ditty, "Wonderful World." The opening lyric is: "Don't know much about history."

In arguing to reporters that face-to-face meetings with America's enemies without preconditions isn't appeasement, Mr. Obama claimed President Kennedy's summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna helped defuse the Cuban missile crisis.

The Vienna summit took place in June of 1961, the Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962. Many historians believe the summit was a cause of the Cuban missile crisis: "There is reason to believe that Khrushchev took Kennedy's measure in June, 1961, and decided this was a young man who would shrink from hard decisions," wrote Elie Abel, author of The Missiles of October.

In his victory speech after the North Carolina primary, Mr. Obama said: "I trust the American people to understand that it is not weakness, but wisdom, to talk not just to our friends, but to our enemies, like Roosevelt did, and Kennedy did, and Truman did."

Neither FDR nor Truman met with Hitler, Tojo, or Mussolini before or during World War II. Their policy was unconditional surrender. They did meet with Stalin during World War II. But the Soviet Union was then a U.S. ally.

Then Mr. Obama said his willingness to meet face to face with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran could be a "Nixon to China" moment. But Richard Nixon could make his overture to split China from the Soviet Union precisely because of his reputation as a tough anti-communist. Mr. Obama does not enjoy a reputation for toughness. And there were plenty of preconditions before Nixon and Mao Zedong met. When you're in a hole, you should stop digging.

Another lyric in the Sam Cooke song is: "Don't know much about geography." In a speech in Oregon last week, Mr. Obama said he'd campaigned in 57 states, and in the "Oregon plan" his campaign released, he promised to protect "national treasures like the Great Lakes," the nearest of which is about 1,700 miles east of Oregon.

This week Mr. Obama said Hillary Clinton had an advantage in Kentucky because "she comes from the nearby state of Arkansas." Mr. Obama's home state of Illinois borders on Kentucky. Arkansas doesn't.

If John McCain were saying these things, there'd be much media speculation about "senior moments."

Is Mr. Obama suffering from early onset Alzheimer's? Or is he just not as smart as he imagines himself to be?

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.

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