If your assignment was, Write an essay on the stupidity of President Bush, you could start in with some confidence. The reason for this is that George W. Bush hasn’t any flair for the spoken word, so that you can take specimens of this weakness and deduce, for your composition on G. W. Bush, that he is stupid.
This is a game of sorts, but the temptations affect the thinking of those naturally attracted to condescension, an exercise which has the gratifying consequence of leaving you exalted. Slate magazine, the spicy child of Michael Kinsley, and nowadays the property of the Washington Post, is celebrating its 10th anniversary, to which end it advertises an anthology, The Best of Slate. One of the essays in it is a mordant derogation of George W. Bush. This isn’t accomplished by discussing five public issues on which the critic differs from Bush, effecting demonization. Such public questions are given here and there, but only as background matter, and the passing point is made that he is worse than his father. (“While some describe the second Bush presidency as a restoration, it is in at least equal measure a repudiation. The son’s harder-edged conservatism explicitly rejects the old man’s approach to such issues as abortion, taxes, and relations with Israel.”) But the author of this 10th Anniversary Celebration of Bushwhacking coolly rises from all such political passions, preferring just to leave it that Bush is–the temptation is to write, “sort of dumb,” but Jacob Weisberg doesn’t say that. He prefers just plain dumb.
On the matter of the president’s uttering sentences that are garbled, Weisberg can’t be argued with. But a difficulty with language can be attributed to many public figures, paradoxically, even to such as have proven skills. The young Dwight David Eisenhower, for instance, actually wrote military manuals when he served under General MacArthur, who was a fussy overseer and a guardian of holy prose. And of course we know that en route to the White House, Ike served as president of Columbia University. But it remains true that some of his improvised spoken language was as impenetrable as the Rosetta Stone. After his answer to the question, What would he do if the Soviet Union again laid siege on Berlin? someone made a wisecrack to the effect that resourceful Soviet cryptographers would have given Khrushchev absolutely contradictory accounts of what President Eisenhower threatened. It was for many years insisted upon by detractors that Ronald Reagan was basically illiterate. That myth is receding, however reluctantly. For one thing, it runs up against the extraordinary letters by President Reagan to divers people on all subjects. Yet it is correct that if the assignment is to put together from Reagan press conferences structureless sentences with conflicting emphases, the job can be done.
Weisberg reproduces a few sentences from Bush that establish the claim of verbal clumsiness. But Weisberg won’t settle for that. His thesis is that Bush is incompetent to think and speak, and that he elected to settle with that incompetence because of laziness, since thinking consumes intellectual calories.
Now there is a problem here, and Weisberg ignores it. It is that Bush has confronted in public contests nimble opponents. You would not do combat with the waspish Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, if you could help it. Ms. Richards is one of the sharpest tongues in town (it was she who said that the senior Bush was born with a silver foot in his mouth). Bush not only survived the encounter, he defeated the wasp.
George Bush met in public debate Al Gore, an experienced debater, and walked away with immunity, as he would do four years later in his encounters with John Kerry. Weisberg doesn’t take on the question of Bush being accepted at Yale, and achieving enough credits to graduate. It requires skills not generally associated with idiocy to maneuver so as to win the nomination of a national political party, and then an election; not once, but twice. Mr. Weisberg’s premise — that to do this does not require intelligence, thoughtful planning, and marginal lucidity — has one wondering, but not about deficiencies in Bush. There manifestly aren’t such in Weisberg in the matter of articulateness, so you find yourself playing with the derivations of it all. 1) You can’t be stupid and become president. 2) You can be articulate and be stupid.