“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”
That was what Sen. John Kerry inarticulately said to a bunch of college kids, skipping classes to attend a Democrat rally at Pasadena City College in California. And then Kerry gave a small, smug smile. With American troops on the battlefield, fighting and dying, he had exhibited his superior intellect by insulting their character and intelligence. If only they had applied themselves in school, instead of lazily failing to make “an effort,” they wouldn’t have to dodge bullets in Baghdad. (As it happens, the men and women who serve in the American military are better educated than the general populace.)
After the explosion of criticism that followed his comments, Kerry indignantly refused to apologize and, without a trace of humor, declared the insulting remark was a “botched joke.” He angrily declared, “It disgusts me that these Republican hacks, who have never worn the uniform of our country, lie and distort so blatantly and carelessly about those who have.” This wildly contorted attack was dazzling in its spin and sputter. Kerry, who attained national notice as the face of an antiwar group that used stories told by fake Vietnam vets to brand real vets as war criminals, was insisting that military service made him immune from criticism from non-vets. “Despicable Republicans” and “right-wing nut jobs” were the ones at fault for his remarks being taken literally. We were supposed to know, if we have studied hard and done our homework, that he was insulting the president of the United States, stupid George W. Bush, and not America’s military. That was what that little contemptuous smile had been meant to telegraph. Bush was a slacker frat-rat in school and we are now stuck in Iraq because of his bad study habits and not because we are in a war against Islamist terrorists who have killed thousands of our citizenry and want to kill as many more as they possibly can.
Throughout the 2004 presidential race, Bush’s stupidity was one of the principal themes of the Kerry campaign. Bush = Stupid, while Kerry = Genius. Indeed, liberal mental superiority has been the overarching conceit of liberalism; conservatives are troglodytes, glowering out from their dark caves at a world they only dimly understand, while liberals are just one or two mental leaps short of transcending this mortal coil and ascending into one of those glittering, non-corporeal energy beings that are sometimes featured in science fiction productions heavy on pedantry and short on space babes and explosions.
James Baldwin wryly defined a liberal as “someone who thinks he knows more about your experience than you do.” To that, we can add, “and who thinks, because of his superior knowledge, he should be making your decisions for you.” While one might suppose this would be offensive to the ordinary herd, liberals have included a stepladder in their construct, allowing lesser folks to climb up to their level (or at least to a level just under where the decisions are made). If you agree with them, you’re a smartie, too! In fact, if you base your agreement on nothing more than your feelings of superiority, you’re even smarter and more superior, because you know “The Truth” without the mundane bother of having to reason it out. Democrats have been playing to this too-common weakness by promoting the charge that Bush is stupid.
How many late-night comedy routines and cartoonists have mocked Bush’s intelligence? How many million words describing W’s lack of wit fill the bowels of Al Gore’s invention, the Internet? How often have Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi or Bill Clinton sought to advance their party by declaring Bush dumb? How many pundits have shortened their workday by disparaging Bush instead of examining his policies? Some conservatives have even joined in. My favorite was a TV pundit who presented an entire program on the issue “Is Bush an Idiot?” The host detailed the president’s “Bushisms.” These are quotations in which Bush jumbled his words or fumbled a rhetorical flourish. Some are amusing but, as a measure of intelligence, they are a poor metric. The president spends large chunks of every day talking to the public, often when he’s exhausted or has no time to prepare. In the thousands and thousands of words he has uttered during his years in politics there are inevitable mistakes. These are lovingly recorded for posterity by his political enemies, who don’t take similar note of the faults of their favored politicians, like Kerry. After analyzing Bush’s faults, the pundit decided that Bush lacked intellectual curiosity. This judgment was undercut by the pundit’s inability to recall the word “curiosity.” He finally offered up “intellectual curiousness.”
Now, how many times have the slurs on Bush’s brain been matched with a specific argument that challenges a Bush policy? We might excuse the comics if they offered similar mockery of liberals but they seldom do that outside of the most egregious cases. The pundits and politicians don’t have any excuse. They are simply resorting to denigration when they can’t counter Bush’s policies. Do you want to criticize Bush tax cuts? You don’t have to counter the argument that the tax cuts stimulated the economy, allowing it to thrive despite 9/11, high oil prices, and the uncertainties of the Terror War–just call Bush stupid. Do you want to criticize Bush’s plan to keep Social Security solvent? You don’t need to explain why Social Security shouldn’t be altered or concoct an alternative plan — just call Bush stupid. You don’t like the war in Iraq? Don’t offer a better strategy or explain how losing will be a good thing for America — just call Bush stupid.
The invocations of stupidity are actually appeals to stupidity. Can’t think for yourself? Uninformed? Do you lack facts to support your opinions? Do you think the Masons or Big Oil or the aliens who snatched Elvis are running the world? Well, don’t bother to stir your brain to assemble your argument or stitch together your grand conspiracy — just call Bush stupid.
This brings us back to Kerry’s “botched joke.” If that is what it was, and not the Freudian slip political maven Dick Morris claims it was, then the joke was just another “Bush is stupid” attack with Kerry positioning himself as smarter. He sincerely believes he is the president’s superior. As Newsweek reported, in the last days before his defeat in 2004, Kerry marveled to an aide, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this idiot.” Kerry’s superiority was cast in doubt not only by Bush handily defeating him but, again, months later, by academic and military records. Kerry finally released some of the military records he had kept private before the election. They showed he had scored lower than Bush on military intelligence tests. Kerry and Bush had both attended Yale (Bush went on to earn an MBA at Harvard while Kerry got a law degree at Boston College) and, while Bush’s grades had long been public, Kerry’s now were published. Bush had gotten a cumulative grade average of 77. This solid C was widely jeered by Democrats till Kerry’s grades came out. He got a 76. To put it in terms the Francophile Kerry might find familiar, his joking about Bush’s poor academic performance is, at best, a case of the kettle calling the pot noir.
Kerry’s self-regard seems to place him above more than just George Bush. After two days of furor over the Pasadena gaff, he finally stopped demanding that Republicans apologize for his mistake and listened to fellow Democrats desperate to pry some sort of apology out of him lest the Democrat party be associated with the words of its last presidential nominee. Kerry issued a statement that was more insulting than his original remark for being crafted with reflection. After invoking his military service, yet again, he regretted “that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply” an attack on the military. He then apologized “to any service member, family member, or American who was offended.” So, if you’re so stupid as to not understand he was making a joke, he’s sorry. He followed with an attack upon the Republican party, “their failed security policy,” and vowed “to fight for a change of course to provide real security for our country, and a winning strategy for our troops.” Exactly what that “change of course” is, what “real security” is, or what his “winning strategy” might involve, he didn’t explain. Why should he? We’re probably all too stupid to understand.
– Edward Morrow is the author and illustrator of numerous books, including The Halloween Handbook.