Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Looking for Proof of Intelligent Life in the Political World....

Sometimes political events bring to mind the classic Ronald Reagan SNL sketch, in which whenever cameras were rolling or members of the public were around he would play the part of an affable grandfather, but the moment they were gone he turned into an energetic, detail-driven dynamo. There was probably some truth to it, that we never got to see the "real" Ronald Reagan who was concealed by a carefully contrived cowboy persona. Whatever his actual behind-the-scenes persona, Reagan was comfortable with his public image.

A few decades later, G.W. Bush offered the public a similarly contrived public persona, that of a Texas rancher who liked to drive around in a pickup truck and clear brush in his spare time. No pictures of G.W. on horseback - to put it mildly, he was not that much of a rancher. And never mind that the ranch was purchased as a campaign prop and sold pretty much the minute G.W. retired from the White House. But the public image worked... to a degree.

Bush apparently chafed at the public's perception that he was not very bright. So, during his presidency he arranged for some meetings with authors and other prominent individuals in which he would attempt to wow them with his deep understanding of their work, before ushering them out to share the news of how brilliant he was. The principal tool appears to have been flattery - convince the participant in the meeting that the President had read their work, thought about it, compared it to other ideas, and found it compelling. Flattery will get you... a lot of places.

I suspect that the campaign didn't succeed - at least, not to the degree the White House had hoped. That is, although I do recall hearing a number of people, some of whom were unquestionably intelligent, claim that the President was very impressive in their meetings, the formula was pretty obvious. But more to the point, it raised the question of why a man who is so impressive in a controlled meeting behind closed doors demonstrated none of the same brilliance and insight in any other context.

All presidents have aspects of their personality that they would prefer to hide from the public, and often they are quite successful in managing their public images. No matter how it is created, once a public persona is firmly established it can be difficult to overcome. John McCain seemed like something of a maverick until he fully embraced G.W., and some who scrutinize his record question the extent to which the label ever truly fit, but the image was strong enough to carry him through his presidential campaign. At the time, the public would have been shocked by some of the behavior attributed to Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and while we now view Watergate as consistent with Nixon's personality, the Nixon you hear on tape is not the Nixon people thought they elected.

Negative images can stick, as well, which is no small part of the reason why political campaigns work so hard to tar opponents before they're known to the public. "Dukakis in a tank". Gerald Ford was probably less clumsy than the average president, but a few prominent incidents led to him being regarded as somewhat accident prone. Al Gore was not the dissembler that his detractors claim, but any number of myths persist about supposed false claims or exaggerations that made for good headlines but turned out to be misrepresentations of what Gore had actually said.

In G.W.'s case, it's difficult to believe that we were simply talking about stage management. That is, once his team made the decision to play up his intellect, it should have been possible to modify his public persona to better display his intellect. Once the decision was made to push his intellect, it should have been possible to demonstrate publicly what was reportedly being demonstrated in private. The fact that G.W.'s P.R. team failed in that effort suggests that the public persona was more genuine than what was going on in controlled, private meetings.

Here's the thing: Yes, the President and his team have enormous power to craft a public image and push that image forward. If it resonates with the public, it can be difficult to overcome, even with facts. By virtue of his intellectual incuriosity and desired "blue collar, man of the people", Bush was able to convince people that he was less intelligent than he actually was. But when he became uncomfortable with that persona, the public simply knew too much about him for him to take it to the other extreme. Had he settled for the middle, where by all appearances the truth most likely would have been found, he might have achieved at least that much.

In contrast with G.W. or Reagan, some candidates want to be seen as intelligent, even brilliant, and work to advance that perception. Sometimes they don't have to work very hard at it - our nation loves dynasties, business and political, and it also associates wealth with intelligence. So if you're rich and have a strong family name, you are 90% of the way to selling yourself as brilliant.

Even if you turn out to be Donald Trump, crass, boorish, prone to making absurd claims and statements, you are likely to maintain your reputation as a business genius simply by virtue of your claimed wealth, no matter how many failed ventures, bankruptcies and dubious licensing schemes you leave in your wake. Frankly, you can see why somebody like Trump would seethe at the "you didn't build that" misquote, because at this point there's little left to the myth behind his fortune - he looks like a narcissist of middling intelligence who learned the building trade (and got some very important connections) through his father, then got very lucky gambling with his inherited fortune.

But the fact is, when somebody is brilliant you can usually find evidence of that. Not in nebulous, Chauncey Gardener-type statements that require you to either defer to the speaker's brilliance or invite you to read into the statement the "brilliant" insight you are hoping to hear (yes, I'm talking about Alan Greenspan). But in documented, public actions, statements and writings that demonstrate the claimed level of intellect. When somebody tells you, in essence, "Trust me, when he's alone in private he says smart things," tell them, "I'll believe you when I hear the tape."

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