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: