It's the stupidity, stupid

George W. Bush's constant gaffes and mental lapses reflect the luxurious laziness of a scion who's never had to work hard at anything. And the media elite has graciously awarded him a Gentleman's C.

Published October 24, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

What does George W. Bush know and when does he know it? (A) Not much and (B) not without long study periods and (C) even then not well. This is not only funny.

Even pundits notice that the man is a gaffe artist -- that's the easy part, the (you might say) no-brainer. Evidence is not lacking that young Bush is grammatically challenged, semantically befuddled, factually slipshod. He makes a cheap spectacle of himself, whereupon his people can brand finger-pointers as, horror of horrors, elitists. Instant replay is made to order for television news -- it requires no homework -- and gaffes are made to order for instant replay.

It's not hard to go to the videotape to show Bush as Governor Malaprop, he of "subliminable," using "subscribe" for "ascribe," "retort" for "resort," "hostile" for "hostage," "forethought" for "forefront," "gracious" for "grateful," "gist" for "grist," "suckles" for "sucks," and so on ad infinitum. Jacob Weisberg in Slate has collected these and other examples (he is not the only one), as well as many an instance of Bush jamming together singular verbs and plural nouns -- as in "Our priorities is our faith" (Greensboro, N.C., Oct. 10) and "Reading is the basics for all learning" (Reston, Va., March 28) -- and inverting, as in "We want to promote families in America. Families is where our nation takes hope, where wings take dream." (La Crosse, Wis., Oct. 19) There is also his memorable crack at Gail Sheehy: "The woman who knew that I had dyslexia -- I never interviewed her." (Orange, Calif., Sept. 15)

Cast as a regular airhead, W. himself has learned to mock his own feebleness, joking, "I've been known to mangle a syllable or two, if you know what I mean." (Greensboro, Oct. 10) As he said to David Letterman the other night, "Well, a lot of folks don't think I can string a sentence together so when I was able to do so, the expectations were so low that all I had to do was say, 'Hi, I'm George W. Bush.'" That's what a man of the people does, turns a charge of incapacity into a gag at the expense of the accuser. Thus did Ronald Reagan, whose age had become an issue in the 1984 campaign, say about Walter Mondale, "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." This is the good-ol'-boy ingratiator at work, and W. has gotten rather competent at that if nothing else.

Thus does George W. Bush of Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, a chip off his father's pork rinds, appeal to his audience's resentment of brains. When he tediously, deceptively, ribs Gore for claiming to have invented the Internet (what Gore said was, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet," a klutzy formulation that is more than half true, but who cares what he actually said and what the truth is?), he identifies himself with people who cannot fairly claim to have invented anything -- people like the winners of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" consulting friends and studio audiences (audiences as focus groups!) on their way to winning big bucks by answering questions about television programs. Bush auditions for entertainer in chief, playing to know-nothings who resent the idea that there are people who know more about anything than they do.

In 1956, upon being told that he had all the "thinking people" on his side, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson replied, "That's wonderful. But I need a majority." Bush's handlers are gambling that the majority will turn its back on the smart kid in favor of the frat party glad-hander. ("This is what I'm good at. I like meeting people, my fellow citizens, I like interfacing with them" -- George W. Bush, Sept. 8.) No presidential candidate ever went broke betting on the anti-intellectualism of the American people.

Follow W.'s gaffes more carefully and something more sinister than sloppiness emerges. There's a quality of mind -- or mindlessness, rather -- at work in George W. Bush that ought to give pause to voters and journalists who may think kindly of some of his positions. After all, a vote for president is not a vote for positions. It is a vote to place a person in power -- or, as Bush likes to call it, "leadership."

Bush gives ample evidence that he does not reason. He thinks not in logical arcs but in scatters. There's a slapdash disorder to many of his infelicities -- they are piles of disconnected words, a sequence of flash cards. Each stands for a slogan that stands for an impulse. He knows he is to repeat them, but he is not clear on what relation they have to each other. So he strings these chunks of words together and they go clunk, one against the other. Most likely he has been primed with these bullet points. But reason he does not. His mind darts -- he cannot keep focus. He loses track of the points he is trying to make, so they come out redundancies -- "Drug therapies are replacing a lot of medicines as we used to know it" (St. Louis).

Consider the governor's extended two-minute drift during the St. Louis debate, in response to a question from a 34-year-old single woman with no dependents about the tax savings she could look forward to:

"Let me just say the first -- this business about the entitlement he tried to describe about savings, you know, matching savings here and matching savings there, fully funded it's going to cost a whole lot of money, lot more than we have. You're going to get tax relief under my plan. You're not going to be targeted in or targeted out. Everyone who pays taxes is going to get tax relief. If you take care of an elderly in your home, you're going to get the personal exemption increased.

"I think also what you need to think about is not the immediate, but what about Medicare? You get a plan that will include prescription drugs, a plan that will give you options. Now, I hope people understand that Medicare today is -- is -- is -- is important but it doesn't keep up with the new medicines. If you're a Medicare person, on Medicare you don't get the new -- new procedures. You're stuck in a time warp in many ways. So it will be a modern Medicare system that trusts you to make a variety of options for you.

"You're going to live in a peaceful world. It will be a world of peace, because we're going to have a clearer, clear-sighted foreign policy, based upon a strong military, and a mission that stands by our friends, a mission that doesn't try to be all things to all people -- a judicious use of the military which'll help keep the peace.

"You'll be in a world hopefully that's more educated so it's less likely you'll be harmed in your neighborhood. See, an educated child is one much more likely to be hopeful and optimistic. You'll be in a world in which fits into my philosophy: You know, the harder work -- the harder you work, the more you can keep. It's the American way. Government shouldn't be a heavy hand. That's what the federal government does to you. It should be a helping hand. And tax relief in the proposals I just described should be a good helping hand."

Lacking a story line, Bush flashes cards. He dashes around pressing rhetorical buttons: the "costs money" button, the "options" button, the "trust" button, the "strong" button, the school button, the hard work button. He cannot give cogent reasons for what he says. He does not think he has to. In fact, throughout his career, he has not had to give reasons. He is entitled. He need not stoop to reason. This is not exactly stupidity, in the sense of native incapacity -- it may be that, but he has not been tested. What it is is slovenliness of a mind-boggling order. He may or may not be dyslexic, but who cares, since he has never had to read much, write much or reason much to get where he's gotten.

This is not ordinary laziness. It is the luxurious laziness of a scion who was raised to think he did not have to give reasons, because he was the third generation of a dynastic family. The governor of Texas is a man who's spent most of his adult life slacking around, never taking the trouble to master any mental discipline, accomplishing nothing worth mentioning that did not flow to him as an heir. The harder you work, the more you can keep. This beneficiary of affirmative action for Connecticut nobility worked harder than a garbageman? What did W. have to know to get where he did? No wonder that, in St. Louis, he did not have to know what the Supreme Court has said about affirmative action. He could get away with this deep thought: "If affirmative action means what I just described, what I'm for, then I'm for it."

The malapropisms, tautologies and evasions are the work of a man who has spent his life overreaching -- and getting away with it. In Hollywood, they call this failing upwards.

Bush has gotten a pass on most of his slipshod ways. Rarely are news commentators bothered to notice. Where Gore's exaggerations get raked over indiscriminately and relentlessly, sometimes fairly and sometimes not, journalists do not rush to point the accusing finger at Bush for his stumbling and dishonesty. Page 1 reports on the candidates' posture, while it is left to inside pages (if anywhere) to note errors, with little sense of which errors count.

Reporters (starting with all-too-moderate moderator Jim Lehrer) thus do not hector W. for "clarification" when he takes credit for an HMO patients bill of rights that he vetoed in 1995, and that became law in 1997 without his signature after he opposed it again. The public's self-glamorizing watchdogs cannot be troubled much to note that he takes credit for a hate crimes bill that he opposed. Few voices rise in righteous indignation when Bush dodges Gore's point that Texas ranks at or near the bottom on health insurance coverage while vastly overstating Texas spending for healthcare for the poor by claiming a total of $4.7 billion while neglecting to note that $3.5 billion, three-quarters of the total, comes from charity care and local government.

The same journals that took seriously the piddling charge that Gore padded his Vietnam record show decidedly little interest in W.'s lies and evasions about his service in the Texas National Guard (where he served in order to dodge going to Vietnam), as documented by Tom Rhodes in the Sunday Times of London and Joe Conason in the New York Observer but scarcely mentioned elsewhere.

On television, Bush's flaws in logic and fact get more attention from Letterman and Leno than the political pundits, who practice knowingness without knowledge. Thus did they declare W. to have passed Lehrer's foreign-policy quiz in the second presidential debate because he was quick to answer thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a list of military interventions. But for all their vigilance about body language and stylistic tics, reporters, editorialists and pundits did not note any lapses of substance:

  • The first intervention that W. thumbs-upped, Lebanon in 1983, was an unmitigated disaster, resulting in much unnecessary death from American shelling, culminating in a terror bombing that killed 241 American Marines asleep in their barracks. Television pundits did not leap to remember. (Thomas Friedman, in the New York Times, did, though.)
  • The Gulf War, which W. of course embraced, became necessary when his father's ambassador, April Glaspie, signaled at a meeting with Saddam Hussein that the U.S. would not react badly if he marched into Kuwait. Some foreign-policy success! This fact has slipped down the memory hole, lubricated by an oblivious press corps. For that matter, Saddam Hussein built up his bloated power -- and was responsible for thousands of Iraqi and Iranian deaths -- during the 1980s, when it was the administrations of Reagan and, you guessed it, George H.W. Bush who green-lighted the Iraq attack on Iran.
  • Bush said: "I hope our European friends become the peacekeepers in Bosnia and in the Balkans. I hope that they put the troops on the ground, so that we can withdraw our troops and focus our military on fighting and winning war." But already 85 percent of the troops in Kosovo are European.

For this performance, conventional wisdom awarded the governor high marks on foreign policy. Manner trumps matter. Even Salon's Alicia Montgomery wrote that, in Winston-Salem, N.C., Bush demonstrated "command of the issues." Evidently, ignorance is no disqualification for "command of the issues."

When the emperor has no clothes, it's considered bad form to comment on his anatomy. Instead, the commentators review his performance: The emperor today displayed the style for which his appearances are renowned ... The emperor dressed better than expected, though not so well as in his last display. The designated commentators are more reluctant than anyone else to blow the whistle, for they are hired entertainers with an above-it-all position to lose. This is a democracy, of course, so instead of emperors, we have governors, but the same principle applies -- when the governor is an airhead, the pundit who wishes to entertain his public finds him floating higher than expected. The pundits do not want to misbehave.

Nor do the network news shows want to take precious minutes to demonstrate that Bush's knock on Social Security for delivering only a 2 percent return flunks out. The 2 percent net is what contributors ultimately get because they are paying for their mothers' and fathers' pensions. (Too complicated to explain, the networks think, not understanding the point themselves or feeling obligated to learn it.) Those who point this out are either Democratic "partisans" or they get only a stripped-down sound bite to say that Bush was wrong but no chance to give reasons. Reasons! How quaint. Reasons are too much to ask. If the candidate cannot be expected to give reasons, why should the candidate's critics be different?

Nor do the media take time to explain that the half-reason why Bush can claim to be "a uniter not a divider" is that the Democratic Party in Texas is like a Republican Party elsewhere. When Bush distances himself from awful Washington, they do not trouble themselves to remind voters that the party that paralyzed government during the Clinton years, the party in charge of Congress when it shut down the government, the party that stomped on healthcare, was the GOP: the Governor's Own Party.

What do the news organizations know and when do they know it? Do they care to find out what they don't know? If they decide they are not obliged to let the rest of us know what we may not feel like knowing, why are they superior to the pandering politicians they scorn? If they are embarrassed to point fingers at a nonentity who is within two weeks of the presidency, where is their pretense of journalistic craft?

As in 1980, the news organizations, embarrassed to be called "the liberal media," are bending over backward to be kind to thoughtless Republicans. Today, as then, their idea of "fairness" is to chuckle and give the smiling gibberish-spouter a special dispensation. Today, as then, they bend so far backward they fall down on the hopelessly old-fashioned task of informing the public. Now, again, they are making themselves useful idiots for an empty charmer.

By Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin taught at Columbia University, wrote regularly for and Tablet, and was the author of "Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street."

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