Gil Troy: Presidential IQ as a Subject Susceptible to Political Debate

Gil Troy, in the Montreal Gazette (Oct. 27, 2004):

At times, this epic 2004 U.S. presidential contest, debating pressing issues regarding the war on terrorism, recipes for prosperity, the responsibility of democratic citizens to one another, has degenerated into schoolyard brawling.

In the Jon Stewart era, the president as village idiot and the challenger as flip-flopper have moved from late-night comedy to the editorial page and the stump. Googling "Bush" and "stupid" yields 1.8 million hits; "Kerry" and "flip flop" yields 163,000 - demonstrating this election remains a referendum on the incumbent.

This seemingly frivolous exchange of insults reveals a serious clash of temperaments and ideologies. It is no coincidence that Democrats tar George W. Bush with the same brush as his ideological grandfather, Ronald Reagan; the Republican linkage between Kerry and the granddaddy of modern American political waffling, Bill Clinton, is also purposeful. The issue is worldview, not IQ.

Bush himself has joked about the IQ issue, playing the all-American, happy-go-lucky boy next door who stumbled upward, rather than the ambitious keener elbowing his way to the top. "You may have noticed I have a few flaws, too. People sometimes have to correct my English," Bush joked at the Republican National Convention. "I knew I had a problem when Arnold Schwarzenegger started doing it."

Similarly, two decades ago, Ronald Reagan shrugged off claims he was clueless with his characteristic mix of populism, confidence, and humour.

"I have never claimed to be a whiz kid, a robot, a bionic adding machine or a walking encyclopedia," he said, using language in the computer age to charm the masses and mock the elites.

Republicans have made the presidential intelligence question another wedge issue in the culture wars. In the New York Times Magazine, reporter Ron Suskind recalled being challenged by Bushie Mark McKinnon, who derided Bush critics for thinking the president is an idiot: "Let me clue you in. We don't care. You see, you're outnumbered 2 to 1 by folks in the big, wide middle of America, busy working people who don't read the New York Times or Washington Post or the L.A. Times. And you know what they like? They like the way he walks and the way he points, the way he exudes confidence. They have faith in him. And when you attack him for his malaprops, his jumbled syntax, it's good for us. Because you know what those folks don't like? They don't like you!"

Bush, like Reagan, is tapping into longstanding American suspicions about smart politicians being too smooth, too clever. Long before Adlai Stevenson the "egghead" lost to Dwight Eisenhower the man of action, American voters prized the rough-hewn plain-speaking frontiersman over the hyper-educated silver-tongued urbanite. In his forthcoming biography of George Washington, the bestselling historian Joseph Ellis attributes Washington's perfect political pitch and superb judgment to the fact he was a man of action surrounded by abstract intellectuals. More recently, Reagan contrasted his bold, simple vision with Jimmy Carter's intellectually oriented temporizing when Iranian fundamentalists took Americans hostage. Reagan insisted "there are simple answers - but there are no easy ones."

Modern conservatism champions this notion of big-picture governance with clear principles repudiating modern liberal intellectual wishy-washiness. Bush positions himself as a man of clarity not eloquence, as opposed to his "slick" opponent.

Flip-flopping - or more fairly, parsing - comes more naturally to John Kerry and Bill Clinton because they view the world as more complex, multi-dimensional, nuanced.

As the first Flower Children turned presidential contenders, Kerry and Clinton in their youths imbibed a gospel of doubt, questioning authority, rejecting traditional assumptions, acknowledging multiple sides of the story. Critics of Clinton's infamous all-things-to-all-people approach joked that, when asked his favourite colour, Clinton would answer "plaid."

In truth, his presidency suffered from an initiatives surplus and a decisiveness deficit, except when he fought for his political life.

This year, while debating Bush, Kerry cleverly tried to turn the flip-flop charge around, quipping: "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong."

Of course, liberal Democrats have their core values, ideological blind spots and unshakable orthodoxies, but they, nevertheless, recoil at black-and-white views of the world. Part of the conservative restoration project - what Tom Wolfe called The Great Relearning - involves resurrecting the black-and-white building blocks of the stereotypical, nostalgia-drenched, pre-1960s world. For all their delight in complexity, when Democrats call Republicans stupid, they tend to betray an assumption no intelligent person could possibly not be liberal; when Republicans call Democrats "wishy-washy," they, too, are obscuring ideological disagreements with character slurs....

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