What kind of fool am I?
A nice piece by Jacob Weisberg in Slate, which addresses a question that I think will resonate long after there’s no Shrubbery anywhere near the White House: exactly what kind of a fool is Bush? Weisberg and Molly Ivins are two of the people who’ve mused more thoughtfully than most, and both seem to come to the same basic conclusion: Bush isn’t an idiot, but he is extremely lazy, anti-intellectual, uncurious, dismissive of education. Stan Crock goes for a more cognitive approach to the same question.
No, he’s not stupid. He is very limited, however.
It’s not stupidity as much as ignorance, and his inability and unwillingness to learn. He’s not very curious. And it’s not a first-rate mind. I mean, you get him to a certain point in a discussion, and if you ever hear him talk about “my instinct” or “my gut tells me,” then you know we’re in trouble. Then you know we have left the realm of facts and logic and where we’re going is something else altogether.
Bush may not have been born stupid, but he has achieved stupidity, and now he wears it as a badge of honor.
Significantly, Weisberg quotes from a number of people who would certainly seem to align themselves politically with Bush:
Richard Perle, foreign policy adviser: “The first time I met Bush 43 . . . two things became clear. One, he didn’t know very much. The other was that he had the confidence to ask questions that revealed he didn’t know very much.”
The unavoidability of the conclusion that Bush’s ignorance is so clear that it’s not remotely a partisan issue is one that opponents of Bush (I’ll avoid using ‘Bush-ism’ here, because to do that would be to credit the man with enough dignity and character to define an entire -ism of his own) will continue to pick at like a bad tooth long after he’s gone.
The question collapses to: given Bush’s manifest inaptitude for the job he’s doing, how could he have been elected? And, given how badly he’s performed in office, how can there possibly, six months before the 2004 election, still be any likelihood that he might win again?
I’ll rise to the challenge and provide a simplistic answer, though one of many, of course: those people inclined to support him because of their support for the policies he represents, however cluelessly, are fully aware of his failings, but just don’t care. His inability to think on his feet, his mangling of any public-speaking that’s not fully-scripted, the cartoonily black-and-white attitudes towards the world, good and evil, right and wrong, which he clings to, his ignorance of the world beyond his immediate circle – none of those matter. He’s their man, so he gets their vote.
And I find myself wondering whether I’d have the gumption to vote for the more capable candidate if he happened to be further from my own position politically. And, worryingly, my answer doesn’t come quickly. Exactly how dumb would my own candidate have to be, before I’d vote for his competent opponent? Exactly how much more competent would his opponent have to be before that would override the difference between policy?
This feels like a new question for me to ask, primarily because my direct political experience has thus far been with British politics. In Britain, we’re very happy to vote for the very, very dull (cf. John Major), but as a country we tend not to vote for idiots. A certain minimum competence is just a pre-requisite. Perhaps it’s the fact that a British Prime Minister is necessarily the leader of the majority party, and one doesn’t arise through the rough-and-tumble of an extremely adversarial political system without considerable experience, ability, and intelligence. One cannot become Prime Minister from nowhere on a tidal wave of cash and sound-bites. So the question in some ways doesn’t even arise in Britain. We never really have idiots to choose from.
This isn’t just a matter of compiling Bush-jokes. It’s a fundamental principle of the democratic process that the people who occupy elected office are actually in control. Otherwise, the whole system collapses. If it’s seen not to matter too much whether the most powerful man in the world is asleep at the wheel, then democracy fails.
So, better someone I disagree with than I fool I don’t? Perhaps.