There is a breezy article in The New Republic by Walter Shapiro about why Rick Perry terrifies liberals such as himself. The title is “Rick Perry: The God-Fearing, Know-Nothing, Pistol-Packing Embodiment of Liberals’ Worst Nightmares.” It is written (rather well) in a sort of self-parodying liberal style. But at one point even the caricature breaks down:
Anti-Intellectualism. Liberals revere high SAT scores. That is why it is no accident that, over the past century, the Democrats have nominated for president five former college or law school professors (Woodrow Wilson, John W. Davis, George McGovern, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama) plus Hubert Humphrey, who was a graduate teaching fellow while working on a Ph.D.
Democrats snootily ridiculed George W. Bush’s scholarly performance, but compared to Perry, the 43rd president—who earned a B.A. from Yale and a Harvard M.B.A.—seems as well educated as John Stuart Mill. And Perry revels in this kind of comparison. Asked last week about how he differs from Bush, he tellingly replied, “He’s a Yale graduate. I’m a Texas A&M graduate.”
Perry plays this educational populism to the hilt. The official bio of the Texas governor boasts that at university he was a “senior yell leader and an animal science major.” A bootlegged copy of Perry’s college transcript [published by the Huffington Post] is the antithesis of grade inflation, with the architect of the purported Texas jobs miracle receiving a “D” in “Principles of Economics.”
Can any of this become relevant in the 2012 campaign?
For example, while I know that one presidential historian has proclaimed Barack Obama the smartest man to assume the presidency in history, is there any evidence that Barack Obama had “high SAT scores,” as Shapiro implies? SAT scores (which came of age in the late 1940s) did not even exist in the time of Wilson or Davis, and when they became a widespread requirement, it was originally for the purpose of merit — to allow those without connections to earn college admittance apart from extraneous criteria. And is there really an automatic connection between “high SAT scores” and “college or law school professors”?
Either the caricature or the embarrassment heightens when we read that “a bootlegged copy of Perry’s college transcript is the antithesis of grade inflation.” So are we to laugh or cry in wonderment over whether a comparable “bootlegged copy” of Barack Obama’s Occidental or Columbia transcript will ever surface after four years of “media scrutiny” — especially his grades in courses analogous to “Principles of Economics”?
If Perry becomes the Republican nominee, I doubt seriously that his undergraduate transcript or indeed his academic record in general will become a source of contention, and for obvious reasons: An unimpressive undergraduate transcript for Perry, as Shapiro rightly notes, plays into the “educational populism” of a poor rural Texas youth.
But if such media scrutiny would require belated reciprocal disclosure from Obama, and if one were to learn that his two undergraduate transcripts were unimpressive, then the issue would not be “economic populism,” but rather a host of embarrassments, from “elite preference” (as in, how in the world did such grades earn him admittance to Harvard Law School?) to prior media unconcern with an such an apparently important issue.
By the way, back when it was a media habit (cf. the Washington Post and the Boston Globe) to publish leaked transcripts and SAT scores of presidential candidates, Bush was roughly comparable, or in some instances superior to, his rivals Gore and Kerry.