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Jewish World Review Dec. 17, 1999 /8 Teves, 5760

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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Bush's intellectual deficiencies -- IS GEORGE W. BUSH smart enough to be president? It's a question that has preoccupied the political pundits for weeks now, ever since the Texas governor failed a pop quiz administered by a Boston reporter, and it has intensified after each of the three televised debates in which Bush has participated.

Most voters aren't paying enough attention to the race for the Republican presidential nomination right now to answer the question for themselves. But that hasn't stopped editorial writers and TV commentators from blathering incessantly about Bush's "lack of gravitas," all the better to impress their audience with their own intellectual gifts. True or not, the image of a dumb Bush fits nicely with most journalists' prejudices about Republicans in general.

Republicans are never smart. They may be wily, like Richard Nixon, but they are never truly brilliant, like, say, Hillary Clinton. And how could it be otherwise? Most Republican politicians don't share the media's views on such things as gun control, campaign finance reform or taxes. When was the last time you read an editorial in The New York Times or the Washington Post in favor of the right to bear arms or against limits on campaign contributions? Which of the TV-network news shows has done a special report on how over-taxed Americans are?

It's just a fact of human nature. We tend to think people who agree with us are smart, and those who don't, aren't. Since most journalists are liberals (some 90 percent of the national media voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, according to one study), they tend to view conservatives as, well, benighted. So long as George W. Bush was talking about compassion for the poor and minorities, the media gave him high marks -- he was, after all, talking like them. Ironically, as soon as he started talking about specific policies -- lowering marginal tax rates, for example -- journalists found him wanting.

It's hardly the first time the media weighed in with their assessment of a Republican candidate's intellectual prowess, which usually coincides with whether they agree with his policies. Ronald Reagan's intellect was -- and remains -- a favorite butt of journalists. One reporter noted recently in an article about Bush's supposed lack of brain power: "Like Bush, (Reagan) gave some people the impression he wasn't exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier." As TV critic Tom Shales noted during the 1980 presidential campaign, the media frequently treated Reagan's pronouncements as if "he didn't quite know what he was saying. It cast doubt on his fitness as a leader, if not, by implication, on his sanity."

Of course, the American people elected Ronald Reagan, anyway, and supported his policies for eight years, despite constant disparagement from the press. Conventional wisdom among elites today is that Reagan was a successful president, if none too bright -- a left-handed compliment from folks who neither knew Reagan well nor agreed with him on much of anything.

I remember reminiscing about the Reagan years with Martin Anderson, who was one of Reagan's chief domestic policy advisers both as governor of California and president. Why is it, I asked him, that so few people are willing to acknowledge what I saw all the time I worked in the White House -- namely, Reagan's quick intellect. Anderson responded by telling me a series of stories about Reagan's near-perfect recall, about the briefcase he carried on the campaign trail filled with high-brow magazines like Commentary, the perceptive questions he'd ask during briefings. Neither Anderson nor I recognized the Ronald Reagan we knew firsthand as the affable buffoon the media depicted as the president.

I've had a similar reaction to news accounts of Bush's deficiencies. My experience with Bush has been more limited than with Reagan -- I've spent about an hour talking to Bush on policy issues, one-on-one -- but I came away impressed with his understanding of issues. He talked about a range of topics from abortion to the breakdown of the family, from poverty to education. He cited with ease books and studies he'd recently read. He was quick, articulate and well-informed. I found his arguments thoughtful, even on those areas on which we disagree.

I'm betting the American people will make the same judgment, no thanks to any help from the press.

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