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August 29, 2004 - The Meme Gathers Momentum

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Last weekend, in Fitness for Command: No one wants to mention the elephant in the room, but things change, you will find a discussion of a new meme, or maybe an old meme returning.

Yes, 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.

And that was followed by a discussion of this.

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

And now we get this.

It's the IQ, stupid
His supposed intellectual failings are the butt of countless jokes, but so far the question of George Bush's brainpower hasn't hampered his electoral prospects. Why not? In the latest of his dispatches for G2, former New York Times editor Howell Raines asks how important intelligence really is in an American president
The Guardian (UK), Friday August 27, 2004

Of course Howell Raines was the follow who had been Editor-in-Chief at the New York Times and resigned over the Jayson Blair scandal and all that faked reporting.  Or he resigned because it seemed everyone who worked at the Times just hated him and his management style, and his favorite, Blair, filing false stories and getting them printed without question, provided a rather convenient lever to dump Raines.  Whatever.

Here in the British press (maybe the Times won’t print him) he drops in an essay that carries the Bush-is-unfit-for-command-because-he’s-dumb-as-a-post meme a bit further. [Note this item was simultaneously printed in the Washington Post, Friday, August 27, 2004; Page A21.]

Raines covers much of the same ground Yglesias covers – the same quotes and facts – but adds a comment about this business with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (emphases in bold are mine and the British spelling isn’t) -


Happily for the White House, this contrived debate over Kerry's war record diverts voters from a truly important national-security question related to the intellectual capability of the incumbent. Was George W dumb enough to be talked into adopting a flawed strategy for a phoney war by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney? The facts and authorship of these blunders are beyond dispute. Cheney and neo-conservative theorists wanted to make war on Iraq, not al-Qaida. Rumsfeld wanted to do it with a much smaller force than the military needed. What we don't know is why Bush went along.

Bush's former press secretary, Karen Hughes, in her awkwardly named book Ten Minutes from Normal, assures us that what "Bush does best of all" is "ask questions that bore to the heart of the matter". She says that during the 2000 campaign, she and a "brilliant" issues staff "never once succeeded" in anticipating all of Bush's penetrating questions. "He has a laserlike ability," Hughes writes, "to reduce an issue to its core."


And that’s the meme in its new mutation. We went to war because Bush was too dumb to think it through. People may want to believe people like Karen Hughes must be right, but it’s getting to be harder and harder to believe this laser vision crap.

Raines too finds an old source - Richard Brookhiser -


The millions of us who did not witness this and other potentially laserlike interactions must rely on speculation as to how Bush's mind works. The most informative writing I've seen on that score was an essay published over a year ago in the Atlantic Monthly by Richard Brookhiser, the historian and conservative columnist sympathetic to Bush. "Bush has intelligence, energy and humility," he writes, "but does he have imagination?"
Brookhiser goes on to worry that Bush's limited information "habitat" could cut him off from the ideas necessary to feed presidential creativity in activities like running a major war. ("Habitat" is a wonderfully chosen word in that it invokes the territoriality of White House advisers in general. Can we imagine Rumsfeld, the alpha-male advocate of hi-tech warfare, inviting the commander of an armoured division into the cabinet room to tell the president why it's stupid not to take more tanks to Iraq?)

Brookhiser goes on to speak of Bush's reliance on "instinct" and the fact that Bush's religious "faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognise, ambiguity".


That’s sympathetic?

Raines too thinks back to the Reagan campaigns and what the cartoonist Garry Trudeau called "the search for Reagan's brain." I remember that.

And Raines adds more.


Trudeau's meaning, of course, was that Reagan didn't have one, but these days the phrase is to me more evocative of the journalistic gropings of the White House press corps to explain what, if anything, was going on inside that big, smiling, glossy-haired head. In a filing cabinet I had not opened in over 20 years, I found my own attempt - a 6,000-word draft of "reflections" on "Reagan's mind". I had never turned the piece in to my editors at the New York Times because I felt I had not solved the mystery as to the quality of Reagan's intellect.

I was not the first, nor will I be the last writer to break his pick on that stone. But in reviewing what I wrote in 1982 after two years of close observation of Reagan on the campaign trail and in the White House, I saw a couple of points that seemed worth revisiting as Reagan's self-appointed heir seeks a second term. I characterised Reagan as a "political primitive" who valued "beliefs over knowledge" based on verifiable facts. The White House spin was that this was a positive in that it represented "rawbone American thinking". I also noted that Reagan had a "high tolerance for ambiguity" as to the outcome of policies that proceeded from such rough-hewn thought.


But Bush is no Reagan.  And that bothers Raines, as he argues Bush is quite different in that Bush doesn’t recognize, as Raines puts it, the mere existence of ambiguity.  He says what we get in George Bush is a shadowy version of Reagan's strengths and an exaggerated version of his intellectual weaknesses.

And then we get an insider story – and you have to love those -


In 1982, at the height of my journalistic desire to explain Reagan's brain, I went to see David Gergen, then a presidential assistant in charge of communications. His was not an easy job, since it included such tasks as explaining Reagan's decision to throw thousands of the most disabled Americans off social security assistance. We're not talking "welfare queens" here. We're talking blind people in wheelchairs.

I told Gergen I wanted to write a piece for the sophisticated reader about exactly how Reagan's mind worked. With a twinkle in his eye, Gergen said, "It will be a long, long time before we can have that conversation." 

It hardly seems worth the trouble now. Reagan is in the pantheon, and the American nation and its allies and adversaries escaped mutual assured destruction. Now the US is at war in Iraq in a conflict that could yet metastasise into regional strife or global terrorism. We'll never know how much Reagan thought and how much he gambled in regard to security and economics. My guess is the answer would be pretty scary. So for the 150,000 US troops in Iraq, for the 99% of taxpayers who will not get a five-figure windfall, for the millions of urbanites unsettled by talk of suitcase nukes, it's still worth asking how Bush's mind really works.


How it works?  Try if it works.

By the way, in the opening of Raines’ piece he refers to this – the official icon of the reborn meme.  And this has been on the web distributed so widely and for so long it is probably in public domain now.  It’s not mine.  (Someone will sue me?)



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Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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