Thursday, September 02, 2010

Is George Bush Stupid?

In the sense of having a low IQ? Of course not. Yet he chose a public persona that, going on two years after he left office, still has his former buddies defending him. Jamelle Bouie quotes Tony Blair's biography,
One of the most ludicrous caricatures of George is that he was a dumb idiot who stumbled into the presidency. No one stumbles into that job, and the history of American presidential campaigns is littered with the corpses of those who were supposed to be brilliant but who nonetheless failed because brilliance is not enough. [...]

To succeed in US politics, of that of the UK, you have to be more than clever. You have to be able to connect and you have to be able to articulate that connection in plain language. The plainness of the language then leads people to look past the brainpower involved. Reagan was clever. Thatcher was clever. And sometimes the very plainness touches something else: a simplicity that is the product of a decisive nature.
Bouie argues,
... decades from now, when the history of the Bush administration has been written, we'll find that George W. Bush suffered from passivity, indifference and incompetence, not stupidity or ignorance.
I can agree with that, except for the "ignorance" part. Bush ran his first campaign on an "ignorance is a virtue" platform. Recall that he didn't know who led Pakistan (or India), as if such an issue could have any real world relevance. He was going to delegate the egghead tasks to a bevy of highly qualified subordinates. His ignorance was pitched as something close to a virtue, making him a beer buddy as opposed to a pointy-headed whatever like Al Gore.

During his early years in office he developed a reputation as agreeing with the last person with whom he spoke. He was into his second term before he broke with those who helped form his early policies and opinions. Which is why people like John Bolton view his first term as a wondrous success and his second term as so problematic - Bush was smart enough to recognize that he had been led down the primrose path, and appears to have shut people like Bolton, Cheney and the neocons out of his decision-making process.

But enough of ignorance - we're talking intelligence here. And as I suggested several years ago, Bush had a carefully cultivated public persona that contributed to perceptions that he was stupid. Right down to the 'ranch' he purchased right before he started his campaign, and sold the moment he left office. Once you're retired, it seems that you're no longer have to pretend to like driving around in a pickup truck or cutting brush.

If there is one word that sums up George Bush's public persona, it's "nuclear". He consistently pronounced the word "nucular". His father knew how to pronounce the word, as did his brother. As did his advisers, Vice President, and speechwriters. And his mispronunciation of the word was a frequent subject of jokes. Even if you believe he didn't know how to pronounce the word, at a certain point you have to recognize he would have been aware of his mispronunciation. At that point was it arrogance - a refusal to admit that he could make a mistake - that kept him from correcting himself? Or was it because, all along, he knew the proper pronunciation but it was part of a carefully calculated public image?

Part of the issue here is that Bush never came across as what one would call a quick, accurate thinker. A typical leader of a political party in a parliamentary system must be a quick, accurate thinker, or he won't rise to the top of the party, let alone survive question period. But it is possible to be highly intelligent and to be a slow thinker. Think of a computer playing chess - how much time it can take for the computer to sift through every possible future move before picking the one most likely to lead to victory. An intelligent person can spend a lot of time identifying and sorting through possibilities. Sometimes, if you want quick decisions, it pays to be either less intelligent or (in Bush's case) less reflective.

Blair's comments about intelligence say something about that - he perceives himself as clever, but seems to concede that Gordon Brown was significantly smarter than he was - just not very clever. Blair benefited from our perception of an Brit who speaks the Queen's English - of course he's intelligent, just listen to him. This is the opposite side of the coin from Bush - of course he's a mediocre intellect, just listen to him. Truth be told, they probably operate at about the same intellectual level - in both cases significantly above average but significantly below genius. And yes, as a mutual admiration society, I'm sure they both enjoyed discussing their cleverness.

Blair's comments remind me of my sister's childhood taunt that she was "street smart" while I was "book smart". My sister is smarter than she gave herself credit for, but by the same token she was not what an outside observer would have deemed "street smart". But really, she was suggesting that she was somehow more clever than I was, and I'll grant that in some ways it was true. I'll similarly grant Blair's point that intelligence isn't enough for somebody to become President, and perhaps it can even be a detriment. Whether Bush came up with his persona by himself or in collaboration with Karl Rove, it was a clever gambit. But no matter how you slice it, Bush (like so many other people on Capital Hill) personifies the lament, "How can somebody so smart be so stupid?"

(Bush fans take note: At present the same question can be asked of Barack Obama.)

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