Dubya: Smart? Or Dumb?

Should journalists be avoiding the subject of George W. Bush’s perceived mental deficiencies? Lately, we’ve been hearing that they should. In the March 13 Washington Post, E.J. Dionne Jr. calls for “a moratorium on calling the president of the United States stupid.” In the March 7 Washington Post, Michael Kelly called Bush a “smart guy.” But where is the evidence for this hidden intelligence? Dionne says that Bush has proved himself smart by conning most reporters into thinking he’s a moderate. (In fact, Bush is a moderate as “moderate” is currently defined within an extremely conservative national Republican party.) Kelly says that Bush’s respect for his core conservative constituency’s few nonnegotiable issues is smart because it leaves Bush room to compromise on many other issues that matter to swing voters. This is something every elected official must do, yet Kelly would never argue that every elected official is smart.

What’s really going on? Chatterbox sees several forces at work.

In Kelly’s case, the impetus to call Bush “smart” comes from Kelly’s own conservatism and perhaps an urge to establish, after hurling Menckenesque invective at Bill Clinton for many years, that he isn’t a blowhard. The counterintuitive quality to Kelly’s thesis must also hold some appeal.

As a liberal, Dionne frets that if the “Bush is a dummy” perception remains in place for four years, Bush will evade responsibility for whatever stupid things he does. “Before long,” he writes, “we expect less of him than we do of the average city council member or county commissioner.” Borrowing from Bush’s own rap on education standards, Bob Herbert of the New York Times has pegged this “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Ronald Reagan benefited from a similar bigotry, most memorably when he presented his addled and self-contradictory explanation for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal. The “I’m out to lunch” defense was not available to Bill Clinton when he explained his role in the Marc Rich pardon because the public knows that Clinton is not a stupid man. Nor was it available to another obviously smart man, Richard Nixon, during Watergate.

Another worry for Dionne is that the criticism casts the critic as an “elite mandarin.” It is an odd feature of current political discourse in America that “equality” is considered a dirty word (unless embedded in the phrase “equality of opportunity”) because it’s too liberal, yet “dumb” is also considered a dirty word because it’s inegalitarian. But if the president really is dumb, don’t journalists have a responsibility to say so, even if their readers don’t want to hear it?

When Chatterbox uses the word “dumb,” he is deliberately sidestepping the great sotto voce debate about Bush: Does he lack innate intelligence, or is he merely “incurious”? (Even Dionne concedes that Bush is “inattentive.”) Chatterbox doesn’t know, and he doesn’t care. All that really matters is that Bush is functionally dumb in the sense that he is visibly ignorant about all sorts of things the president is supposed to know about. David Sanger of the New York Times spotlighted an excellent recent example in a March 8 story about Bush’s talks with South Korean president Kim Dae Jung:

Today Mr. Bush made it clear that he had little intention of following Mr. Clinton’s path, at least not now. In a brief exchange with reporters after meeting Mr. Kim in the Oval Office, Mr. Bush said: “We’re not certain as to whether or not they’re keeping all terms of all agreements.”

But the United States has only one agreement with North Korea–the 1994 accord that froze North Korea’s plutonium processing at a suspected nuclear weapons plant. And at a briefing this afternoon two senior administration officials, asked about the president’s statement, said there was no evidence that North Korea is violating its terms.

Later, a White House spokesman said that Mr. Bush was referring to his concern about whether the North would comply with future accords, even though he did not use the future tense. “That’s how the president speaks,” the official said.

If that doesn’t persuade you, check out this transcript of Bush’s first press conference, where Bush in effect accused a reporter of playing “gotcha” when he was simply trying to find out Bush’s stance toward a proposed European rapid-reaction force:

Bush: Well, why don’t we wait until after [Prime Minister Tony Blair] and I visit, so I don’t have to give the same answer twice.

Reporter: But just on the whole outline of the question of the European defense capability–

Bush: You bet. I understand, you’re trying to get me to tell you the answer twice. (Laughter.) Britain and the United States have got a special relationship; we’ll keep it that way. I look forward to talking to the Prime Minister about the importance of NATO. It is–anyway, let me visit with him first. I promise to call upon you tomorrow. Nice try.

The following day, when Bush was asked the same question again, it was clear that Bush’s answer–the force would defer to NATO and would probably inspire European nations to increase their defense budgets–needn’t have depended on any special briefing from Blair. Bush had simply been unfamiliar with the subject.

The mere fact that journalists like Dionne and Kelly bother to argue that Bush isn’t dumb is itself evidence that Bush is dumb. After all, nobody ever bothered to argue that Jimmy Carter or John F. Kennedy wasn’t dumb. Historians have argued, persuasively, that Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn’t dumb, but this is something liberal intellectuals should have understood at the time. (How could a dummy have survived as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II?) More typically, when David Broder and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post published a series (later a book) arguing that Dan Quayle wasn’t quite as dumb as people said he was, it could be taken as confirmation that Quayle really was dumb. No politician is as dumb, or as smart, as the public believes him to be because the public lacks the means to acquire a nuanced familiarity with his mind. But the public can usually form an opinion that’s in the ballpark. As Franklin Foer points out in the March 19 New Republic, the much-maligned “conventional wisdom,” though banal, is usually correct. Lately there’s been a lot of revisionist thinking about Ronald Reagan’s grasp of policy nuance based on a cache of recently unearthed radio commentaries and speeches. These have been published in a book, Reagan In His Own Hand, which is being lauded by conservatives. What Chatterbox sees when he gazes into Reagan In His Own Hand, though, is the condescension of editor Martin Anderson, a longtime Reagan adviser, and of George Shultz, who wrote the foreword. Here’s Shultz:

I could tell dozens of stories about specific times when Ronald Reagan displayed detailed knowledge about policy issues, and when he took decisive action based on that knowledge–without the benefit of someone whispering in his ear or sliding a note into his hand. But so ingrained is the belief that he was an amiable man–not too bright, the willing captive of his aides–that it would probably not make much difference.

In his introduction, Anderson and his co-editors marvel that Reagan’s radio broadcasts

drew upon hundreds of sources, and his drafts contain thousands of facts and figures. Sometimes he lists his sources in accompanying documents. In one case, for an essay on oil, he appended them. At times he cites his sources in the text.

Now, let’s be serious. If Shultz and Anderson said these things about you, would you really feel flattered? Or would you want to punch them in the nose?