Isn’t it time for the Smart Guy to Win?

October 3, 2008

Let me start with this:  I have many friends and acquaintances who are conservatives and Republicans.  I disagree with all of them on most issues, but I believe them all to be thoughtful, intelligent people.  My mother-in-law and father-in-law are both Republicans.  I have tremendous respect for both of their intellects.  There are many on the GOP side in public life who I hold in high esteem even as I disagree vehemently with their issue stances. Chuck Hagel, Orrin Hatch, John Boehner, Dick Lugar, Chuck Grassley, Olympia Snowe; these are all intelligent people.  Dick Cheney is as close to a living incarnation of Lord Voldemort as we’re ever likely to see in public office, but I always used to respect his mind.  Antonin Scalia is a liberal’s nightmare, not only because he is so conservative on all questions of jurisprudence, but also because he is so freakin’ brilliant.

In short, not only would I never say that all Republican politicians are stupid, but I would go so far as to say that most are truly blessed with keen minds.

So how is it that over the past thirty years Republican national tickets have become the refuge for the inarticulate and the intellectually incurious?  How is that people like Dan Quayle, George W. Bush, and Sarah Palin to name just three, have managed to reach the pinnacle of power in their party, leaping past people who are far more deserving and infinitely more qualified?

Sarah Palin’s performance in last night’s debate was very Bushesque, and I don’t mean that in a good way.   She had a few answers ready, and no matter the question she was determined to use them.  How else do you explain a question on bankruptcy being answered with a discussion of energy policy?  Taxes and energy — that’s what she was ready to talk about, and she kept running back to them.  When she strayed from the script she rambled and stumbled and was clearly beyond her depth.  And despite her best efforts — her folksiness, her winks and snarky comments, her winning smile — she couldn’t hide this.  Yes, she “exceeded expectations,” but only because her performance in recent interviews had been so disastrous as to raise questions about her fitness to be governor of Alaska, much less as Vice President.  But when it comes right down to it, her performance last night was singularly unimpressive. 

Bush won in 2000 against Al Gore because in part, more people thought he was a regular guy.  He was folksy, too.  He had a quick, mischievous smile and could tell a joke.  Nevermind that he wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box.  Al Gore might have been smarter and better prepared for the office, but he was annoying.  He was that know-it-all kid in the class who gets the best grades but who no one likes.  Bush was the cool kid who got “Cs” on all his papers and tests but was a cut up in the cafeteria.  Same thing with Bush-Kerry four years later.  Same thing with Bush I vs. Dukakis.  Bill Clinton was probably the most brilliant person to run for President in the last half century — him and John Kennedy.  Clinton is a voracious reader, a lightning quick study, and a wonderful speaker, off the cuff or scripted.  He was charismatic as hell, which is why he won twice; but he was also always the smartest person in the room, which is why he left office with approval ratings in the sixties.

The fact is that Democrats tend to choose intelligent nominees, many of whom turn out to be lousy candidates (Clinton is the obvious exception), while Republicans tend to choose intellectual lightweights who are charismatic.  Sarah Palin fits the mold perfectly.  I find her pretty obnoxious, but I can see why people are drawn to her.  That is, until I start to think about the fact that this is a contest for President and Vice President of the United States.  Then I can’t see it at all.

For some reason Americans don’t like intellectuals.  And this goes back far beyond the Reagan years.  I remember my parents telling me about Adlai Stevenson, the brilliant governor of Illinois who lost to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.  He was attacked for being “an egghead,” a strange epithet which seems to be the 1950s version of “elitist.”

Look, in case you haven’t noticed, things aren’t going so well right now.  The economy sucks.  We’re fighting two wars; one of them has been going on for way, way too long, and the other is going very badly.  Our planet is dying a slow, painful death.  Our nation’s standing in the world is lower than it’s been at any time since the War of 1812.  Isn’t this a time when we should be looking for someone really, really smart to lead the country?  Doesn’t it make sense to look for someone who is intellectually curious, who is a terrific communicator, who has a nimble mind?  I don’t want my President to be “plain folk.”  I want him or her to be smart as hell.  I don’t want the guy who graduated fifth from last at the Naval Adademy, or the guy who got drunk instead of studying while at Yale, or for that matter, the one who went to five different colleges in six years.  I want the one who aced his classes and made history by achieving academic honors in law school.  And I want the Vice Presidential nominee who is informed, who can speak intelligently about all the issues, who answers the questions he’s actually been asked.  To borrow a line from Aaron Sorkin, these are serious times and they demand serious people.  And I’m hoping for the sake of our country that Sarah Palin’s fifteen minutes of fame are just about up.

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