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Jewish World Review
Nov 23, 2011
26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5772
Being smart can be a drawback in presidential elections
The mayor of Chicago was having himself one whale of a time. Speaking at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday, Rahm Emanuel began with:
“While we meet here tonight, the Republicans are having a debate across town. I’ve watched a number of them, and I’ve got to be honest, I never thought I’d say this — I’m beginning to miss Sarah Palin’s insights.
“Their debate was called the Thanksgiving Family Forum — which is fitting because I have never seen such a collection of turkeys.
“Look at their top candidates: Take Mitt Romney. He said he would be in Iowa tonight — we should have known he would change his mind.
“Newt was at the debate. I heard he had to leave early to spend the holiday with his loved ones … the salespeople at Tiffany.
“And Herman Cain? I was actually hoping Herman would stop by today and see me before the debate. But he was at his tutorial on Libya. The scary part: His tutor was Rick Perry.”
The audience bellowed with delight. Emanuel had, in the Democratic view, summed up the Republican field perfectly: It was untrustworthy, mercenary and dumb. Especially dumb.
Emanuel didn’t even deal with those Republicans near the bottom of the polls like Michele Bachmann. Why bother? She already had been asked on Fox News whether she was a “flake.” And when Fox News asks an arch-conservative if she is a flake, well, she probably is.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
“Don’t try to be charming, witty or intelligent,” Laura Bush told her husband as he began his campaign for president in 2000. “Just be yourself.”
That line always got a laugh, and the man who told it at stop after stop was George W. Bush.
The Bush campaign, i.e., Karl Rove, had decided the candidate was no genius and that wasn’t a bad thing. How well did smart people really do in presidential elections? Adlai Stevenson, perhaps the last nominee proud to be called an intellectual, lost twice to World War II superhero Dwight Eisenhower.
Ronald Reagan made so many gaffes as a candidate for president that his staff could barely keep track. In his 1980 campaign, he muffed statements on Vietnam, civil rights, Taiwan, creationism, the Ku Klux Klan and how trees cause “93 percent” of the air pollution in America. “The only good news for us at this time,” an aide told his biographer, Lou Cannon, “is that we were making so many blunders that reporters had to pick and choose which ones they would write about.”
George W. Bush didn’t know Slovakia from Slovenia or Greeks from “Grecians.” And his “Bushisms” became famous: “Will the highways on the Internet become more few?” he once asked. And: “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.” And then there was the ultimate one: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”
Bush’s opponent in 2000 was Al Gore, who not only was smart but a policy wonk. And Gore was asked one day by The Associated Press if Bush was “too dumb” to be president.
Gore’s reaction? “Gore convulsed in laughter while taking a drink of Diet Coke,” the AP reported. “He grabbed a towel to hold against his mouth then, finally swallowing, insisted the tape recorder be stopped for an off-the-record observation.”
Bush didn’t care. Let Gore spit up into his towel. “Just because I happen to mispronounce the name of a country doesn’t mean that I don’t understand how to lead,” Bush said. “What matters is: Do I know how to see clear goals? Do I know how to lead? Do I shoot straight? And that’s all I know to do.”
This year, Herman Cain would put it even more succinctly at a New Hampshire campaign event. “We need a leader, not a reader,” Cain said.
(Talking Points Memo would point out that Cain’s line bore a striking resemblance to a joke in the animated “The Simpsons Movie” of 2007 in which an imaginary President Arnold Schwarzenegger resolves a major issue without reading any of the alternatives. “I was elected to lead, not to read,” President Schwarzenegger says.)
Cain, recently asked a question about Libya, clearly could not remember which country Libya was. (Hey, there are more than 190 countries in the world, he’s supposed to remember every one?) But he explained away his momentary blackout by saying he had too much knowledge, not too little. “I’ve got all of this stuff twirling around in my head,” he said.
And Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history, could not remember the third of three federal departments he would shut down as president — quite a feat considering they were all one-word answers: commerce, education, energy. He explained it with a simple, “Oops.”
In the past, none of these lapses would have been considered disqualifying for presidential service. But, some now say, the times have changed. The world is highly perilous, the economy is more than a little shaky, and Americans are going to demand brighter candidates.
The Republican polls seem to bear this out — sort of. Perry and Bachmann are in single digits. But so is Jon Huntsman, who is very bright but just too moderate for most Republicans.
Romney and Newt Gingrich are virtually tied at the top of the polls — and both are considered bright or a reasonable facsimile thereof — yet Cain is only a few points back, and all have a chance to win Iowa.
The debates are forcing all the candidates to ramp up their games and, usually, most candidates get better with experience.
So the real question should be: Is our candidates learning?
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