IDIOT-IN-CHIEF
by James Marshall Crotty
January 19, 2001

IDIOT-IN-CHIEF

he US has had stupid Presidents before--Reagan and Ford come to mind. Men of the mid-brow, of simple thoughts, of one-dimensional concepts. Decent men. Well-intentioned men. But men who lacked the ability to follow up a question on policy because they've never thought beyond their own doctrinaire understanding of the policy question at hand.

Yet even with these stalwarts of mediocrity, never before have we encountered a man so lacking in intellectual substance as George W. Bush. Simply put, Dubbya is a coaster, a frat boy, a dull-witted, verbally-challenged preppy with a preference for the Cliffs Notes summary rather than the nuances of the primary text. A "man without qualities," to paraphrase Robert Musil. And this, to paraphrase Martha Stewart, is a very "good thing."

Because stupid Presidents are bloody good for the old Red, White, and Blue. Here's why:

1. When Americans feel comfortable with their President, the country moves smoothly. Smart Presidents make Americans feel very uncomfortable. At first Americans feel insulted, and then they grow paranoiac--"what is he doing that I don't know about?" mutters the everyman. Despite his charismatic appeal to the average Joe, Joanne, and assorted Gennifers and Monicas, Clinton was done in by Americans' suspicion of smartness. Clinton wasn't helped either by an educated First Lady who lacked the common touch. Al "Don't Get Snippy" Gore was a victim of a similar revulsion towards the "smartest kid in the class," even though his intellect was no match for brainy Bill.

You see, America is fundamentally anti-intellectual. Richard Hofstadter told us that back in 1966 in his seminal work, "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life." Americans en masse are at ease with a man who shares their low ambitions for intellectual achievement. A policy nut like Willie Wonk-a Clinton was tolerated only as long as he played the Bubba--with the requisite references to "pigs" in "pokes"--and covered up his amazing intellect, and a saxophonist's skill at impromptu rhetorical improvisation, with a veneer of mono-syllabic Babbitry.

2. The office of the US President necessitates quick and clear decision-making. Stupid Presidents make quick and clear decisions. There's no Hamlet-like moments of indecision. They don't sweat the finer details of policy, as do smart Presidents. Case in point: Jimmy Carter, widely regarded as this century's sharpest President. After all, Carter was a nuclear physicist. In fact, he understood nuclear power so well he had no fear in entering Three Mile Island after the meltdown. Carter, however, was one of our least effective leaders. He labored over details. And was beaten down by the job. The American people lost confidence in a man who was too bright to be their boss.

3. Stupid Presidents get good advice. This is because stupid Presidents delegate. And delegate well. Because they are at home with their innate stupidity, because they have nothing to prove intellectually, stupid Presidents are comfortable surrounding themselves with people who do the thinking for them. Reagan had Weinberger and Stockman. Dubbya has the likes of Vice-President, and smirker-behind-the-smiler, Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (who held the same position under Former Stupid President, Gerald Ford), and deputy chief of staff Andrew Card, Jr., orchestrator of the smoothest Republican Convention in decades. Stupid Presidents have an instinctive ability to smell a smart idea, even if they could never hope to come up with the idea themselves. And because they are not afraid to surround themselves with superiors, and because, like the best reporters, they are not afraid to ask dumb questions, stupid Presidents end up getting better advice than Presidents who feel the need to intellectually prove themselves to their subordinates.

4. Stupid Presidents are consistent. It is axiomatic that what matters most to foreign leaders, to the stock market, to the Pentagon brass, is not so much what a US President stands for (as long as it is within the bounds of reasonable policy) but whether he is consistent in his defense of it. Reagan was undeniably consistent. The Pentagon grasped this, and fashioned a steadfast front against Soviet aggression. The Soviets saw this, and backed down. The investment community saw this, and ratcheted up the stock market to unprecedented levels. The American people saw this, and consumed in record amounts.

I hated Reagan. Because he was not an intellectual and because, as a result of this trait, he was so maddeningly successful. Intellectuals hate to see idiots succeed. It invalidates the intellectual and his quibbling. It renders insignificant the intellectual's arduous path of policy Sturm und Drang. It says to the intellectual--soul-searching, smarts, and complex wrangling are not necessary for success.

All that is required is unwavering conviction and a little bit of charm. By nature, unwavering convictions are anathema to the thinker, who dissects and questions all. Charm, however, is the intellectual's Achilles heel--it has the ability to break down defenses.

When it comes to intellect, George W. Bush makes Ronald Reagan look like a MENSA brat. While cognitively-challenged, Reagan was at least nimble on his feet--an expert rhetorician, always ready with a comeback or artful spin. Bush is constitutionally incapable of such Sophistry. He constructs a simple agenda, and reiterates its basic tenets over and over like an automaton. Questioned about the subtleties of those policy positions, he can only come back with a repeat of the original position--not in any fancy new garb. Just a repetition. As London's Guardian newspaper puts it, "at the dawn of the 21st century, the global village is finally complete. At last it has a global village idiot."

It is funny to watch our nation's press corps analyze this man for clues to something deeper. The print press in particular, tangentially aligned as they are with the thinking class (a small minority within the great mass of America), needs to believe there is something mysterious about Dubbya Bush, something more that was not apparent during the campaign, something intellectually vital in him that validates their high-brow view of themselves. As a result, they've built a complex edifice where none is justified, and, more to the point, where none is needed (because as any Bush staffer will tell you, Americans don't want a wonk as President).

The rash of overwrought analyses of our new President from the New York Times to Newsweek are like the amusing efforts of rock critics who studiously dissect the aesthetics of a band that doesn't warrant more than a passing paragraph. Rock is from the groin, not the cerebellum. A feature length story on the thoughts of George W. Bush is like a master's thesis on Aerosmith.

Journalists have to accept that the Clinton era of charismatic wonkery is over. With Clinton, journalists were warranted in probing deeper because the Clinton front belied a more complex and substantive core. There were endless riches to be mined within the life and legend of the kid from Hope. With the kid from Texas, what you see is what you get.

And sooner or later, the press, the academics, the whole thinking class in America will wake up to a simple, if terrifying, fact: in regards are newly elected President, there is no there there.

And that is a very good thing.


James Crotty is author of "How to Talk American," co-author of "The Mad Monks' Guide to New York City," and a motive force behind the alternative travel web site, Monk.com. Jim@Monk.com.

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