Politics & Policy

The False Modesty of ‘Nerds’

The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner is no “nerd prom.”

Washington is full of nerds. I know. I speak nerd — not fluently, mind you, at least not anymore. But I certainly know more than a few phrases memorized from a Berlitz nerd-to-English phrase book. I can talk Dungeons & Dragons (both D&D and AD&D). I know about the Golden Age of Comics (as in comic books — if you thought that was a reference to Bob Newhart’s heyday, subtract 20 nerd points right there).

Anyway, if you spend any time in Washington you’ll find nerds. What happens is most of them sublimate their fixations with comics, or baseball cards, or 1960s British comedies, to policy minutiae and political arcana. They’re like Christians in ancient Rome — you can still spot them if you know the signals.

Some are quite successful. I once spent a half hour with one of the most respected (liberal) political analysts in Washington talking about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was like discovering he was from my homeland. Or consider Paul Krugman; I strongly suspect that the Nobel Prize winner and New York Times columnist is a nerd. He says he was inspired to become an economist by the “psychohistorians” in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. Senator Patrick Leahy (D.,Vt.) is a Batman fanatic.

But these and other examples notwithstanding, nerds tend not to be “front of the store” types. In The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Steve Carell spent most of his career working the back room because it’s understood that’s where people like him belong.

The same goes in Washington. The vast majority of the nerds crunch the numbers for the politicians and news anchors. They explain why the stats are important to people like, say, NBC’s David Gregory, who seems to be biding his time until he can achieve his real dream of hosting Entertainment Tonight.

Many of the beautiful women you see on TV aren’t nerds. That doesn’t mean they’re not smart. But even if they were study geeks in high school, that doesn’t mean they were nerds. In the movie Election, Reese Witherspoon plays an earnest, dorky, driven young woman, but she’s not a nerd. Holly Hunter in Broadcast News isn’t one either — she’s a maniacally self-serious bore. Tina Fey in 30 Rock? All nerd, baby.

So why am I telling you this? Because, suddenly, we’re supposed to call the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner the “nerd prom.” Hundreds of media outlets have recycled that description.

And, frankly, I find it offensive. George Clooney doesn’t go to “nerd proms.” Nor do Kim Kardashian and Lindsay Lohan. I’ve been to a half dozen correspondents’ dinners, and nerds were far less well represented than rent-seeking K Street sleazeballs, social-climbing poseurs, and power-hungry pols of all parties.

Look, everything is relative, and social distinctions tend to matter only at your own level and above. If you’re the prom queen or the captain of the football team, everyone outside your clique is a nerd. And if you’re the czar, everyone outside the royal court is a peasant. For good reasons and bad, Washington is a magnet for sports stars, war heroes, and businessmen. That doesn’t make them nerds.

We have never had a nerd president. All of them tend to have a mixture of resentment, admiration, and contempt for the nerds. And that goes especially for Barack Obama, who, more than most, seems to care deeply about seeming cool.

The elite D.C. press corps calls its annual gala the “nerd prom” because it sounds self-deprecating around the Hollywood stars and New York bigwigs (while actually playing on their insecurities) and the politicians. They admire the former for being more famous than them, and resent the latter for being more famous than them.

It’s vanity as branding. What they’re really trying to say is: “The only difference between this and the Oscars is we’re really smart.” It’s of a piece with the seemingly self-deprecating, but really self-serving, slogan “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people.” No, it’s really not.

Now don’t get me wrong. I also have contempt for the people who flock to the dinner in order to cozy up to power for the sake of bragging about cozying up to power. In his mixed performance at this year’s “nerd prom,” late-night host Jimmy Kimmel said, “Everything that is wrong with America is here in this room.” He was right. He wasn’t talking about the nerds.

— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute , and the author of  The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.

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