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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

He ain't dumb, he's my president


Time magazine

December 13, 1999
Web posted at: 2:31 p.m. EST (1931 GMT)

I wish I could offer George W. Bush some advice about how to fend off efforts to portray him as a dimwit, but even Dan Quayle rejected the only slogan I came up with when he had a similar problem: "Definitely Not the Dumbest Guy in the Deke House." Political pundits are warning us that the public is in danger of seeing all the presidential candidates as caricatures--McCain as a hothead, for instance, and Gore as a manlike object and Forbes as a terminal dork. Just who might be responsible for leaving the voters with these impressions is not the sort of question political pundits bother their pretty little heads about. It may be worth noting, though, that in recent weeks the New Republic has carried cover drawings of Bush as a dunce, with the tag line WHY AMERICA LOVES STUPID CANDIDATES, and as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, with the tag line THE HARDEST JOB IN POLITICS: THE WOMAN WHO HAS TO GET GEORGE BUSH A BRAIN.

A front-page story in the New York Times last week pointed out that candidates opposing Bush seem intent on implying that he doesn't have wattage sufficient for the job. This is difficult to combat gracefully. By joking about his own temper, John McCain not only helped defuse the issue but also picked up some points for being self-deprecating. In the early Clinton years, Gore managed to seem less like a piece of chain-saw sculpture for a while by going on talk shows to make fun of his own woodenness. But if you're running for President, making fun of yourself for being dumb is, well, dumb.

At least it has seemed so until now. One of the New Republic pieces, by Jonathan Chait, argued that, partly because voters seem to be in a mood to prize personal authenticity over ideas, candidates see some advantage in presenting themselves as, if not flat-out stupid, at least aggressively nonintellectual. It's true that when Bush first got into the race he joked a bit about his academic shortcomings in college, and when his Yale transcript was printed in the New Yorker, the impact on his campaign seemed so negligible that I was moved to write a couplet that went, "Obliviously on he sails/With marks not quite as good as Quayle's." (The fact that those marks got him into the Harvard business school, by the way, is yet another reminder of which class of Americans has always benefited from the original form of affirmative action.)

If Chait is right, "Definitely Not the Dumbest Guy in the Deke House" would be precisely the sort of slogan Bush's campaign should avoid. When reporters ask him questions designed to discover whether he really has read James Chace's biography of Dean Acheson, he shouldn't answer with some foreign-policy boilerplate from his stump speech. He should say, "Couldn't finish it. Too many long words."

It's a risky strategy, though. Acknowledging that he's not much at absorbing the intricacies of government policy might leave the impression that Bush is sort of like Ronald Reagan, but it could also leave the impression that he's sort of like Dan Quayle. It's too early, I think, for the G.O.P. to be pondering whether there'd be any electoral advantage in changing its name to the Know-Nothing Party.


Cover Date: December 20, 1999

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