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August 22, 2004 - No one wants to mention the elephant in the room, but things change...

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No one wanted to say it, but someone finally did.

In the last presidential election campaign, four years ago now, we were told that George Bush might have had little experience up to that point, and not much curiosity about anything, and he didn’t know about a lot of places and people and things, and that, in fact, he might not be terribly smart – but that didn’t matter.  Intelligence didn’t matter.  Character mattered.  You could look up all the shallow and stupid things Bush said – and see what he knew nothing about – and then find all the conservatives defending him.  Bush would restore honor and dignity to the White House, they said, and his smart advisors, with their decades of experience in previous administrations, would keep him from stumbling.

We were sold his upright character, and a backup infield of great talent.  And we bought it.  Gore was too smart by half – but you couldn’t trust Gore.  Gore was liar who had been second in command to an even bigger liar.  Honesty, directness, simplicity – in short, character – matter more than how smart you were, or how clever.  We didn’t need that.

Now Matthew Yglesias says the obvious – in detail.  We did need that.  The current guy just isn’t up to the job and never was.  And it’s time to say so.

So this was published last week and is getting a lot of press.

The Brains Thing
Three years of watching Bush makes the point: Intelligence matters more than “character.”
Matthew Yglesias. The American Prospect - Issue Date: 09.01.04

Yglesias asks you to remember the narrative at the time -


… With the country enjoying a seemingly endless spell of peace and prosperity, and no apparent daunting challenges facing the next chief executive, the media were finally granted the chance to construct a narrative entirely around personalities. Al Gore, based on a handful of small exaggerations and his association with the occasionally sordid behavior of Bill Clinton, was said to have a character problem. George W. Bush, meanwhile, was haunted by a lack of experience and intelligence.

This left liberals flustered. Most of Gore’s “lies” were, in fact, nothing of the sort; he was, upon examination, not the same person as Clinton; and finally, his Vietnam experience -- he enlisted in the Army upon graduation from Harvard -- contrasted favorably with his opponent’s. But liberals never figured out how to convert these facts into a character argument on Gore’s behalf.

Conservatives, on the other hand, had a ready answer to the charges leveled against their standard-bearer: Intelligence didn’t matter. A president, after all, is assisted by a cabinet, White House aides, and a staff that numbers in the thousands. Surely those people could help him out when he needed to know the name of the president of Pakistan or run some numbers on a tax bill. Even George Will, who in August of 1999 fretted about Bush’s “lack of gravitas -- a carelessness, perhaps even a recklessness perhaps born of things having gone a bit too easily so far,” wrote the following January that he was prepared to have his “doubts about Bush’s intellectual weight and steadiness” be alleviated by an appropriate vice-presidential selection. Dick Cheney, he suggested, was just the man for the job, and later that year Will became a happy camper.


Well, Cheney may be a hyper-intelligent, ruthless man, of vast experience, but even he cannot make something out of nothing.  As Lucretius said a long, long time ago - Nil posse creari de nilo.  You need some raw material to work with, after all.  In the case of Bush, well, there was much there there.

So why didn’t the Democrats and other liberals make more of a fuss about the fact the guy didn’t know squat and didn’t want to know squat?

Try this (my emphases) -


Liberals unanimously believed that Bush was not up to the intellectual challenges of the job. But fearful of re-enforcing a stereotype of left-wing elitism, they time and again shied away from pressing the argument. With the point thus conceded, Gore fought things out on the enemy terrain of character. To the Bush campaign’s promise to “restore honor and dignity to the White House,” Gore had no real reply -- except to put as much distance between himself and the incumbent as possible. Thus the country was treated to the strange sight of a vice president essentially disavowing his popular, rhetorically brilliant, and largely successful predecessor. Joe Lieberman was put on the ticket, and the campaign reached its high point when Gore made things really clear by delivering an ostentatious kiss to Tipper on national television at the convention. This, the campaign said, is a candidate who truly loves his wife, not at all like that other guy. But ultimately, character -- at least as defined by the Republicans and, more important, the media, who happen to be the ones who do the defining -- isn’t a point on which a Democrat can win.


Yeah, we all wondered what that stupid long sloppy kiss was about.  It was, we see, a character thing.

Well, Gore lost and we got the second George Bush.  But that there seemingly endless spell of peace and prosperity was broken with those airplanes taking down both towers of the World Trade Center, smashing into the Pentagon and dropping out of the sky east of Pittsburgh – and three thousand dead – all in one morning.

Yglesias suggests it was then, if we admit it, we knew we were in trouble -


If ever there was a moment when the country might have been called to question whether it was well-served in a time of crisis by a leader with scant knowledge of the relevant issues, it was then. Instead, things merely got worse. Intelligence was off the table entirely, while character became the cult of moral clarity, a transformation well expressed by former Bush speechwriter David Frum in his memoir. After the attacks, he wrote, he realized that “Bush was not a lightweight.” Instead he was “a very unfamiliar type of heavyweight. Words often failed him, his memory sometimes betrayed him, but his vision was large and clear. And when he perceived new possibilities, he had the courage to act on them -- a much less common virtue in politics than one might suppose.” With the nation reeling from attack, the thirst for a strong leader was palpable, and so the press obliged by constructing Bush into one. Lacking the conventional attributes of a skilled -- or even competent -- chief executive, he became, as Frum put it, an “unfamiliar type of heavyweight.”


An “unfamiliar type of heavyweight?"  Yeah, sometimes known as a lightweight, or as someone in way over his head.

But no one would say that.  We needed to “come together” and all the rest.  One didn’t say such things.

Yglesias covers that too – how Frum’s view was what we were supposed to say.


… Richard Cohen, part of a small army of liberal commentators who would eventually find themselves following Bush into Baghdad, wrote in his December 18, 2001, column that “I applaud whenever George Bush issues one of his dead-or-alive pronouncements” and denounced those, “invariably on the political left,” who “upbraid him for his supposed childishness.” Unlike his critics, Bush had a Reagan-like “moral clarity” about the struggle; and that, rather than any childishness, was the important point.

Such was the mood of late 2001. On October 20, The New York Times reported that “many Democrats who once dismissed Mr. Bush as too naive and too dependent on advisers to steer the United States through an international crisis are now praising his and his advisers’ performance. Some are even privately expressing satisfaction that Mr. Gore, who tried to make his foreign affairs experience an issue in the campaign, did not win.” Gore “may know too much,” said one anonymous former Senate Democrat quoted by the Times.


Of course, of course - knowing too much is always a problem.  Wouldn’t want THAT.  When the Democrats are saying such things, we are, indeed, in deep trouble.

Yeah, and praise these advisers’ performance – Wolfowitz and Rove and Perle and all the rest. You know, the guys who believed Chalabi.  You know, the guys who wanted this war with Iraq that would cost very little and where we, the liberators, would be greeted by folks tossing flowers, and everyone would rally around us and admire us in awe. Right.

Yglesias’ money-shot is here -


Three-plus years later we know better, or at least we should. Intelligence matters. The job of the president of the United States is not to love his wife; it’s to manage a wide range of complicated issues. That requires character, yes, but not the kind of character measured by private virtues like fidelity to spouse and frequency of quotations from Scripture. Yet it also requires intelligence. It requires intellectual curiosity, an ability to familiarize oneself with a broad range of views, the capacity -- yes -- to grasp nuances, to foresee the potential ramifications of one’s decisions, and, simply, to think things through. Four years ago, these were not considered necessary pieces of presidential equipment. Today, they have to be.


And that about sums it up.

Yglesias extends his argument to domestic policy and has a long section, quite depressing, on matters with North Korea.  And there is quite a bit on how Bush makes decisions.  Click on the link for details.  It is all quite detailed.

And then Yglesias turns to the local paper out here to wrap up (my emphases)-


Reviewing Clinton’s My Life in the June 24, 2004, Los Angeles Times, neoconservative Max Boot happily concluded that “conservatives like character, liberals like cleverness.” He’s right. But to state what should be obvious, the president is not your father, your husband, your drinking buddy, or your minister. These are important roles, but they are not the president’s. He has a job to do, and it’s a difficult one, involving a wide array of complicated issues. His responsibility to manage these issues is a public one, and the capacity to do so in a competent and moral manner is fundamentally unrelated to the private virtues of family, friendship, fidelity, charity, compassion, and all the rest.

For the president to lead an exemplary personal life is surely superior to the alternative. But within obvious limits -- no one would want an alcoholic president, for example -- it doesn’t really matter. Clinton’s indiscretions caused his family pain and produced awkward moments for the parents of some young children. But Bush’s bungling has gotten people killed in Iraq, saddled the nation with enormous debts, and created long-term security problems with which the country has not yet begun to grapple.

That the country should be secured against terrorist attacks, that deadly weapons should be kept out of the hands of our enemies, or that it would be good for a wide slice of the world to enjoy the blessings of freedom and democracy are hardly controversial propositions. But these things are easier said than done. Even a person of goodwill is by no means guaranteed to succeed. Yet succeed we must. And if we are to do so, the question of intelligence must be put back on the table. The issue is not “cleverness” -- some kind of parlor trick or showy mastery of trivia -- but a basic ability to make sense of a complicated, fast-changing world and decide how to confront it. Any leader will depend on the work of his subordinates, but counting on advisers to do the president’s heavy lifting for him simply will not do. Unless the chief executive can understand what people are telling him and follow the complicated arguments they may need to make, he will find himself paralyzed at every point of disagreement, or he will adopt the views of the slickest salesman rather than the one who’s gotten things right.

The price to be paid for such errors is a high one -- it is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Already we’ve paid too much, and the problems confronting the country are growing harder with time. Unless the media, the electorate, and the political culture at large can shift their focus off of trivia and on to things that actually matter, it’s a price we may pay again and again.


Okay, someone finally said it.  The guy is in way, way, way over his head, and we’re paying the price.

But intelligence doesn’t matter, character does.  Moral clarity is all.  Or so we’re told.  We are supposed to prefer character, clarity and unwavering mindless confidence - even in the face of reality - over competence and coherence.

Digby over at Hullabaloo asks the quite obvious question here -


When Republicans tell me that it doesn't matter if Junior is intelligent I ask them if they think it matters if a doctor is intelligent or a judge or a general and if they think the job of president requires any less of a brain than those jobs do. Then picture George W. Bush doing any of them.


Geez, maybe someone should devise a sort of SAT test for presidential candidates – where one must demonstrate comprehension skills answering questions about difficult hypothetic issues, making sure you don’t miss key points and complex interrelationships, and where you’d have to write a coherent essay explaining an idea, and you could throw in a multiple choice section on geography and history so you could show you do know where things are in the world and who might be mad at whom and why.

Nope.  Bush hated the academics at Yale and blew off a lot of his classes – so that wouldn’t be fair.  And it may not be what we really want.

Yglesias perhaps would approve of such a basic qualifying exam.  Intellectuals would approve.  The rest of the country?  No.  “Character” will do for them.

Then again, at bottom probably no one believes the leader here should be an actual tweed-wearing wooly intellectual with a briar pipe and all that.

But someone who thinks clearly would be nice.  Someone marginally coherent would be nice too.  Someone who thinks about the real consequences of one’s actions would also be nice.  A little curiosity wouldn’t hurt either.  Who cares if he or she doesn’t know anything about Lucretius?  Basic competence would be nice.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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