Dumb chic

His mental shortcomings are a joke on late-night TV, but George W. Bush may be laughing all the way to the White House.

Published November 2, 2000 8:31PM (EST)

"If you don't stand for anything, you don't stand for anything!" Gov. George W. Bush said to a packed rally at Bellevue Community College on Tuesday night.

Then, realizing that his maxim didn't come out exactly right, he tried again. "If you don't stand for something, you don't stand for anything!" he cried. It still didn't sound quite right.

Nor did his promise, made just hours before at a rally in Portland, Ore., that "Never again in the halls of Washington, D.C., do I want to have to make explanations that I can't explain."

It's at this rally where Bush used the word "resignate" as a substitute for "resonate" (as in "issues that resignate with the American people").


No, he's not the most articulate presidential candidate in history. The reporters covering Bush have long recorded these more-or-less daily flubs with glee, to the point that Bush has had to explain himself to the American people, spinning his incoherent babblings and his poor vocabulary.

The result is not always reassuring. "Sometimes my brain gets ahead of my words, if you know what I mean," Bush said to Jay Leno on his Monday night appearance on NBC's "Tonight Show." During the second presidential debate, Bush tried to aw-shucks his way out of the problem, saying that he's "been known to mangle a syl-LAH-ble or two myself."

Bush has referred to himself as "plain-spoken," but his inarticulateness isn't plain-speaking -- it's the vocabulary of a man with 54 years of indifference to furthering his own education. What's truly remarkable is that the shallowness of Bush's noggin has now become a running joke -- a sort of Dope Chic -- that actually works in his favor. Jokes about Bush the amiable dunce distract attention from far more serious weaknesses: his ignorance of policy matters, his campaign lies, his ruthlessness.

Bush knows this. Thus viewers were treated to an introductory skit on "The Tonight Show" Monday night featuring Bush mispronouncing "flammable" as he did "subliminal" at a press conference in September: something like "Flammamababable." A taped appearance for this weekend's "Saturday Night Live" will have him mispronouncing "ambivalent." At the Al Smith Dinner in New York last week, Bush jokingly compared himself to William F. Buckley, a fellow Yalie, by saying, "Bill wrote a book at Yale; I read one." He said the ouster of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic means that there's one less polysyllabic name for him to memorize.

Beneath the fumblemouth jokes lurks an issue that Democrats once thought would pose a much larger problem for Bush, one that the campaign of his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, has tried to exploit among a shrinking but still-significant chunk of voters: that Bush may not be mentally up to the most important job in the free world. If Bush wins the presidency next week, questions about his brains will at the very least continue to be late-night comedy fodder, if not something more serious.

The Bush camp seems to acknowledge the issue. The candidate is reading off a teleprompter more and more in these closing weeks, and hasn't held a full-blown press conference since his disastrous "subliminable" conference seven weeks ago. In fact, Gore and Bush have completely reversed accessibility standards -- Gore comes back on Air Force 2 just about daily to rap with reporters, while with the exception of a brief Friday-night availability on a Florida tarmac a few weeks ago, Bush is hermetically sealed, safe from anyone who would ask him to explain his record or proposals.

That the issue of Bush's intelligence is nowhere near as prominent as Gore would like can be attributed, in part, to the media, which while mocking Bush's gaffes has analyzed the two candidates' policies as if their respective understandings of their policies were equal. A Monday New York Times comparison of Bush and Gore on foreign policy issues, for instance, included a chart that characterized the two candidates' positions on the half-dozen or so military involvements that PBS's Jim Lehrer asked them about during the second presidential debate in Winston-Salem, N.C. On the question of the Balkans, rather than quoting what Bush actually said in the debate -- which revealed that he didn't know that the Europeans were shouldering any, much less a majority, of the responsibility for the ground forces there -- the Times based its characterization on the Bush camp's official policy position.

With the media curiously refusing to shine a light on the things Bush doesn't seem to know or understand -- for example, the post-debate story in the Times didn't mention that Bush had erred in his claim that all three of the men who murdered James Byrd Jr. had been sentenced to death -- Bush's stylistic superiority during the debates furthered his momentum. Call it "the soft bigotry of low expectations." He faked his way through it, and he seemed much more genial than Gore -- who was strung up on stylistic problems of his own -- so the media assessed him to have "won" the debates.

Republicans like pollster Bill McInturff argue that Bush's performance during the debates "resolved that question" of his intelligence for voters, especially since the spectacle of Gore's multiple personality disorder seemed much more obvious. Of the Gore campaign's last-ditch strategy to exploit whatever lingering doubts there may be about Bush's candle-wattage, McInturff says that he's "not entirely convinced that it's a smart attack."

The Gore team clearly disagrees, and keeps hammering the issue home that Bush is a dummy. The issue has been a double-edged sword, however. One Gore advisor says that by painting Bush as a genial idiot, the Gore team has undercut its charges that he is a bald-faced liar.

Bush said during the second debate that "we spend $4.7 billion a year on the uninsured in Texas." It turns out that $3.5 billion of that funding comes from charitable care -- none of which is paid for by the state. Did you know that? Probably not. Because, according to a Gore advisor, most reporters and swing voters don't condemn Bush for lying. They assume he just didn't know what he was talking about -- as with Bush's untruthful statement that he supported a patient's bill of rights that in fact he long opposed -- and the story gets no play.

For whatever reason, the media has chosen to harp more on his verbal howlers than on his policy cluelessness. Certainly, it's more fun. After all, which anecdote do you prefer? That Bush had no idea who Stanley Fisher was? (He's the No. 2 man at the International Monetary Fund.) Or that in Illinois a few weeks ago, Bush said of Gov. George Ryan that "he married, like me, above his head"? The more likely reason the media has focused on his malapropisms, however, is that it's safer: Raising questions about his fundamental competence seems partisan in a way that tweaking his candlepower does not.

There seems to be a lot of space there, "above Bush's head," so the Democrats, playing the cards they've been dealt, throw the dummy card on the table over and over. Gore's running mate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., has all but said Bush is a maroon, though he's couched it in weaselly language -- "He isn't ready to be the kind of president America needs now," Lieberman said on Monday. That night, Gore himself on NBC's "Nightly News" did his classic I'm-not-saying-what-I'm-now-saying thing. "I think that the proposals that my opponent has presented ... do raise questions about the wisdom of the ideas he is presenting," Gore said. "But I personally am not going to judge the qualifications of my opponent."

But the GOP B-team is out there responding to the question, so it must be having some resonance. In response to Democratic attacks, Republicans like Gov. John Engler of Michigan, Gov. George Pataki of New York and Sen. John McCain -- who during the primaries questioned whether his then-rival "was ready for prime time" -- have pointed out that Democrats leveled similar charges against Ronald Reagan.

This doesn't exactly answer the question, of course. Nor should it be even remotely reassuring. Reagan may have been "The Great Communicator," but his inattention to the details of his policies spelled disaster for the disabled and the deficit, and his delegation of duties -- a quality about Reagan's presidency, along with his optimism, that Bush lauded on "The Tonight Show" Monday -- led to scandals among his Cabinet secretaries and foreign policy havoc in Lebanon, not to mention the Iran-Contra affair. Toward the last few years of his presidency, if not before, it's clear that Reagan's tragic struggle with Alzheimer's had created a White House where staffers like chief of staff Howard Baker were running the show.

Bush has already made it clear that he'll be surrounded by smart advisors. Far from sidestepping the question, when asked about his future Cabinet at a town meeting in Manchester, N.H., two weeks ago, Bush started rattling off a list of brainy friends: foreign policy advisor Condoleezza Rice, retired Gen. Colin Powell, economic adviser Larry Lindsey and running mate Dick Cheney.

Political guru Charlie Cook of the National Journal and Cook Political Report says that "the concern's still there" among voters about "if Bush is up to it." But, he says, "the anxiety over it isn't as high. In the debates he resolved some of the reservations in a lot of people's minds, and he helped himself a lot. He got himself closer to the point that he can close the sale, but I don't think Bush closed the sale."

Cook says the issue could still work for Gore -- maybe. "If you ask people who's brighter, who's more knowledgeable, more qualified, very few people pick Bush. And that gives Gore some maneuverability. But he can't hit a single or a double on the issue, he's got to really cut through and hit it out of the park." Grouping the last two segments of undecided voters into "know-nothings" and "agonizers," Cook says that questions about Gore's trustworthiness or Bush's intelligence could put it away for either man. For the "know-nothings," it's "gotta be a negative ad that just smacks them in the face, like a fish slap across the face. For the 'agonizers,' it's gonna be who better resolves or addresses their reservations last."

Still, beyond the issue as a political tool, the late-night jokes or the ways that the media has spotted Bush a couple of dozen I.Q. points, the question persists: How dim is Bush, exactly? Does he really not know the difference between the words "resignate" and "resonate"? Does he truly not understand why his Seattle rallying cry -- that "our priorities is faith" -- is ungrammatical and even somewhat embarrassing?

Actually, the impression that Bush leaves is quite the opposite of embarrassment. Vanity Fair writer Christopher Hitchens said on MSNBC's "Hardball" Monday night that Bush is "unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things."

It is true that Bush doesn't seem all that interested in anything outside his immediate sphere of self-interest. He didn't watch President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address in January, for instance, which is pretty remarkable in itself. And then there are more basic comprehensions of the everyday language of adults. The fact that he made it to age 54 without knowing how to pronounce the word "subliminal," for instance. He wouldn't exactly usher in an era of arts and culture as John F. Kennedy did in 1961. He's long given up pretending that he's in the middle of a book about Dean Acheson.

But Hitchens' analysis seems a bit harsh. Bush's innate intelligence is certainly above average, and he did graduate from Yale and Harvard Business School. On a few issues of policy, he's fairly conversant -- education and tort reform, for example. About baseball and hardscrabble politics, Bush is a veritable wizard.

But the fact that he's only interested in learning about certain issues has left major gaps in his Texas record. A Texas healthcare lobbyist, for example, a friend and supporter of the governor, once confided that Bush doesn't comprehend basic facts about healthcare policy because he just doesn't care. This has had policy ramifications disastrous for hundreds of thousands of Texans, because he seems to regard emergency rooms as an acceptable provider of healthcare for the state's poor. Obviously, an approach in which the poor, particularly poor children, regularly visit doctors for checkups is not only more humane, since it will lessen the number of emergencies to begin with, but more cost-efficient. But Bush doesn't seem to get this. And a majority of American voters don't seem to care.

It's disingenuous to claim that Bush is anything more than a mediocre mind; he is far from the best and the brightest. But then again, "The Best and the Brightest" was the name David Halberstam gave to our crack policy team that got us bogged down in the Vietnam War. And in the end, jokes about Bush's intelligence run up against a simple question: If he's so dumb, how come he's on the brink of becoming the next president of the United States?

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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