The Breakfast Table

Gore: A Closet Jefferson?

Dear Will,

I love Bill Richardson. He opened Los Alamos to the public. Thanks to him, my 2-year-old will grow up knowing how a handful of real plutonium really feels. He’s sort of a cross between Edward Teller and Mr. Wizard. A great American.

Dismissive anti-intellectualism, you say? That’s the kind of thing that makes America vote for a guy. Intellectuals are fine in their place: corner offices in the Faculty Annex. It’s impossible for leaders to contemplate their way through government, and even ‘60s-vintage intellectuals–in their more lucid moments–appear to agree.

Wasn’t the lesson of the 1994 election that Americans wanted government, not government seminars? Al Gore reportedly worked himself into twist at Clinton’s early penchant for navel gazing. Wasn’t the lesson of the Clinton impeachment that a well-reasoned moral code wasn’t necessary–or as The New Yorker would have it, even desirable–in a president?

American government is not the place for deep people. They simply don’t thrive there. As far as most Americans are concerned, Plato was wrong. “What is the good?” is not the question that will help us select the leader of a great republic. The real question is, “How much paper can this suit move across his desk in an hour, and does he look good on TV?”

Look at the 20th-century record. Few presidents have been intellectuals, and those who were made lousy presidents. Teddy Roosevelt was an intellectual. He was also a racist, war-mongering psychopath. Taft was an intellectual. He was also a lard-ass who couldn’t win a three-way race against a racist, war-mongering psychopath and an arrogant, pinch-faced university don–who, glory be, was another card-carrying intellectual.

Herbert Hoover was intellectual in a policy-wonkish sort of way. He was trounced by a savvy pol who barely cracked a book and made a religion out of unjustified confidence. (Is there really nothing to fear but fear itself?)

Perhaps you’re right about Bush’s religious convictions. Perhaps he’s like the Evangelical Republicans (or the Evangelical occupant of the White House) who insist they’re saved simply because they’ve found Jesus–then go out and live as if they’re auditioning for a Hogarth print. Perhaps he’s like Catholic Democrats who clutch rosary beads, say four Hail Marys, and then vote for abortion rights, the death penalty, and damn near anything else they can find to piss off their bishops.  (Then there are the hybrids, like Henry Hyde, a Catholic Republican who makes the bishops happy with his votes, then goes home to the mistress for a little Hogarth action.) If he’s not a theologian–a religious intellectual–then he’s like most Americans. They’ll identify with him. Voters hate dark nights of the soul.

So Bush may not be a deep thinker. All signs point in that direction. But I haven’t seen evidence that Al Gore is a closet Jefferson, either. Am I missing something?  As for clinging to certainty, Bush has no choice. If he didn’t, the electorate would dismiss him as a spineless vacillator–a man who could see all sides of an issue, but couldn’t make a decision. They’d call him Adlai Stevenson. They’d brand him … an intellectual!