One of the dumbest and most vexing of all banalities is the condescending claim that someone is “trying too hard.”
“Trying too hard” is something that always offends those who have too much and got what they have too easily.
Jay Nordlinger relates a priceless anecdote about the Indian educator Ben Chavis, who, having been accused of (angels and ministers of grace defend us!) “acting white,” responded: “‘Acting white’ is not enough. I’m acting Jewish. Or maybe Chinese.”
Trying too hard? No such thing.
But I understand what they mean. It’s not the effort that causes eye-rolling, but the insincerity.
I give you Senator Elizabeth Warren.
If there is anybody in American politics in 2019 who is trying too hard, in that sense, it is Senator Warren.
Senator Bernie Sanders needs to expend very little effort to convince the world that he is a left-wing kook, because he is a left-wing kook, an old-fashioned red who couldn’t think of enough nice things to say about the Communists who murdered 100 million people in the 20th century. Senator Kamala Harris is not trying too hard, and it shows: “It doesn’t matter what it costs,” she says. Oh, but it does, Senator — to the people who have to pay for it. Robert Francis O’Rourke might try too hard one of these days, if he can get around to it.
Senator Warren is a familiar type of character, one that is not necessarily dishonorable: the grinder. I know the grinders when I see them. I went to nerd school — imagine a West Texas high school where everybody knows your SAT score and nobody knows who the starting quarterback is — and you meet a lot of grinders at nerd school. I had a few of them when I used to teach, too: “Tell me exactly what I have to do to get an A in this class.” But, like I said, I don’t think that there is such a thing as trying too hard, and the grinders play to their strengths: brute force. It’s like the two or three times a year I do the dishes: I don’t bring any joy or panache to the task, but I can keep scrubbing until the work is done or somebody tells me to stop because I’m taking the enamel off the Le Creuset.
Some grinders are my kind of people: relying on work ethic for what they don’t have naturally. Some of them are Tracy Flicks.
Senator Warren is a Tracy Flick. Tell me this isn’t basically Elizabeth Warren vs. Howard Schultz:
Of course she was attracted to the law. Law school is Grinder HQ, ground zero for ambitious mediocrities, the best practical option for people who aren’t fast enough to work on Wall Street or creative enough to work in Silicon Valley and too lazy to hustle real estate. Law school is the grand entrepôt of political hackery — Chuck Schumer didn’t even bother making a desultory effort at practicing law after finishing up law school; he was running for the New York state legislature before he even passed the bar.
Senator Warren is a seeker after celebrity. She never had much of a legal career (she wrote wills and the like from home) and instead sought the pseudo-celebrity of academia, which offers many attractions: gentle workloads, security, a measure of prestige, and — not least — a stage. Academic life can be very rewarding — Senator Warren and her professor husband earn nearly $1 million a year between them — but that wasn’t enough. Warren became an author of dopey self-help books and an occasional cable-news guest, instructing Lou Dobbs on the tribulations of the middle class. She found a bigger audience in activism, and a bigger one still after securing a very safe seat in the Senate representing Massachusetts, from which comfortable perch she pretends to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted — she’s very comfortable with some of the comfortable, including the big corporate law firms that sponsor her campaigns — as she seeks, ever hungrily, after larger venues.
What she believes is . . . contingent. She was, not too long ago, a full-throated advocate of school choice, writing: “With fully funded vouchers, parents of all income levels could send their children — and the accompanying financial support — to the schools of their choice.” That kind of heresy does not get you nominated by a party run by public-sector-union bosses, and so she has evolved on that and other issues. She reminds me of the womanizing football player in Infinite Jest who approaches his potential conquests with cheerful honesty: “Tell me what sort of man you prefer, and then I’ll affect the demeanor of that man.”
What kind of candidate the Democrats prefer just now is a left-wing kook, but one who isn’t an old white guy with creepy help. Senator Warren is no longer being advertised as a woman of color, and the Democrats have not had the very best of luck with awkward white grandmothers in recent years.
So, Senator Warren may not make it. But it won’t be for lack of trying.
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