So What If George W.’s a Dope?

After Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, the legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko counseled against panic, even if, he

After Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in 1980, the legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko counseled against panic, even if, he wrote, the nation had elected its dumbest President ever. But Royko died a couple of years ago. He didn’t live to see George W. Bush assembling a cabinet in waiting.

Whether or not Mr. Bush gets to preside over a cabinet remains to be seen. If he does, the country will be in the hands of a modern Warren G. Harding, the genial small-town newspaper publisher whose good looks and seductive charm recommended him to the Republican bosses of 1920 (and to Nan Britton, his young mistress). Mr. Bush would become the second member of his family to depart from the norms of standard American English in the course of defeating a Democratic smarty-pants whose emotional intelligence could, to paraphrase Fred Allen’s summation of sincerity in Hollywood, fit into a flea’s navel.

And yet, or perhaps as a result, the George W. Bush who co-stars in Newsweek’s quadrennial backstage-at-the-campaign summation is an engaging and very human character who has John Kennedy’s ironic detachment but none of his intellectual curiosity. He is all E.I. (emotional intelligence), and, like many a Republican candidate before him, he disdains I.Q., analysis and intellectual pretension. He is pleased to note how well he is doing with what he calls, affectionately, the “double-width vote,” the trailer-park crowd. In the same issue of Newsweek, Al Gore, author and pedant, comes across as a conniving, programmed, nasty creature of the modern era’s meaningless partisanship. These are not insignificant insights; in fact, they go to the heart of this inconclusive campaign’s dynamic. “Emotional intelligence is the basis of leadership ability of every kind,” said writer Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence , when asked about the election. “It’s being able to … persuade people, being able to articulate a shared vision so people feel passion, too.”

The reporters who followed George W. Bush around the country for 18 months couldn’t help themselves; they got a little bit of a crush on him, even if they didn’t fall in love the same way that a previous generation had fallen in love with John Kennedy in 1960-including, as Richard Reeves has pointed out, Richard Nixon. “Men fell in love with him,” Mr. Reeves has said of his biographical subject, President Kennedy, “women fell in love with him, Richard Nixon fell in love with him. It was this ease that Nixon resented so much.”

As for George W. Bush, said Mr. Reeves, “he’s way behind Kennedy in charm. The man has charm because he was compared to Al Gore. There were great similarities between 1960 and now. But George Bush is no John Kennedy. He has the discipline of the ignorant, and so much so that he never, never said anything specific, and he was never questioned on anything specific. And there was some brilliance in the way that was set up.

“I’m not sure it ever took smarts to be President,” said Mr. Reeves. “If the Presidency were about being smart, Herbert Hoover would be the greatest President we ever had. Politics is for the best second-rate minds. In the end, each President is judged on judgment, not on smarts. I don’t think raw intelligence is the best test-it’d be nice. I personally thought Bush wasn’t too dumb to be President. I thought and kind of hoped that he was too dumb to get to be the President.”

Al Gore, a man blessed with a good marriage, a happy family and a reputation as an intellect, couldn’t figure out how to make even his supporters love him, and seemed annoyed that the other guy was getting so much action.

Then, in the last few days of the campaign, Al Gore and his surrogates raised the issue that obsessed the Vice President’s most rabid supporters-the dope factor. Gore supporters suggested that George W. Bush may be easygoing and charming for a guy so enamored of state executions but, damn it, he was no … George H.W. Bush. Senator Lieberman stepped up to bat and, without much subtlety, said that George Bush wasn’t “ready to be President. Not now, not this time. Maybe later.” The poor, dumb, I.Q.-challenged fellow simply wasn’t up to the task at hand, the Gore people said. “I voted for Gore, not because I had the hots for Gore, but because I don’t think the Presidency should go to a certifiable dumbbell,” said historian Stanley Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate .

Of course, similar things were said about Ronald Reagan, both Roosevelts and even the young John Kennedy. Walter Lippman dismissed F.D.R. as an ordinary man who wanted very much to be President; Oliver Wendell Holmes famously observed that F.D.R. had a “second-class mind.” Intellectuals also complained that Harry Truman was a haberdasher, and that Dwight Eisenhower read Zane Grey novels.

The intellectuals, of course, are almost always wrong about these things-the difference with George Bush is that so many men and women on the street feel the same way. The task at hand, however, is to forget the Presidential I.Q.’s and think about their P.Q.-Presidential Quotient. Mr. Reagan and the two Roosevelts rank among the 20th century’s most effective presidents, and Kennedy might well have had he served two terms-particularly if he had gotten his wish and run against Barry Goldwater in 1964. They had, as Holmes observed of F.D.R., first-rate temperaments.

Presidential Quotient may have very little to do with actual, raw, testable intelligence, and more to do with some ineffable combination of street smarts, raw smarts, E.S.P., human sensitivity, narcissism and theatricality.

“Ronald Reagan is a perfect example,” said Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who just published the first volume of his memoirs, A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings. “He didn’t know what the hell was going on. And he was one of our most successful Presidents.” High P.Q. By contrast, two of the century’s smartest Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, seemed to know everything-from nuclear submarine technology to Soviet ideology, from who was using the White House tennis courts at any given time to how best to stonewall a federal investigation. And yet, add up their P.Q.’s: both high on intelligence, both disastrously low on coming to terms with their surrounding landscapes.

“I’m sure Bush is a nice fellow,” Mr. Schlesinger added. “But he’s not my type. Maybe I’d like him if I met him. But I doubt that he’s read many books.”

How much does that matter? In times of prosperity, Mr. Schlesinger noted, “likability” can be “more important than ability.” The Bush in Newsweek is comfortable enough with himself to reassure campaign staff that there will be no mass firings, no campaign shakeups, after his disastrous defeat in New Hampshire. His grateful staff was ready to shed blood for him. The well-read Mr. Gore sees bad polling data and decides that he must reinvent his themes, his image. Psychobabbler Naomi Wolf had the answers to his problems: He must change his wardrobe and his persona, and she’d tell him how-for $15,000 a month. Al Gore may be smart, but on two counts, Americans didn’t think he was: 1) Americans don’t think it’s smart to be snookered, and 2) Americans think it is really smart to know who you are. Among the 20 characteristics that make up emotional intelligence, Mr. Goleman said, is self-awareness.

Emotional intelligence ought to be part of the liberal agenda, for just as multiculturalists preach that there is no one set of ideas and customs, E.Q. asserts that there are other forms of intelligence worthy of respect. “There are different formulas for star performance and outstanding leadership,” Mr. Goleman said, “but there’s no one way to be a great leader.” Nor, perhaps, is there any one way to be a great student. Progressive school districts throughout the country are attempting to apply the tenets of emotional intelligence in the classroom, hoping to gain insight into students who might, in a less enlightened time, be burdened forever by a low I.Q. score. And if it works there, it could work at the White House. In fact, it has almost every time. Remember Jimmy Carter’s slogan-“Why Not the Best?”-and its promise not only of moral but meritocratic superiority? But the liberal and academic elites have little reason to acknowledge the power of E.Q.; indeed, they always dismiss it. Who knows (and no one does) how the great intellectual paradigms among Presidential candidates-Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, Mario Cuomo-would have done in the White House (although we suspect they would have left us beautiful journals)?

But there is little question that modern politics and media value personality and biography at the expense of substance, and prize the qualities enshrined in E.Q. dogma. That may not always be in the best interests of the Republic. “Emotional intelligence,” Mr. Goleman said, “may at least give the semblance of being competent as a leader, even if you’re not actually.”

But it’s the actually that counts.

Charm is a wonderful thing on television, at a debate, in New Hampshire pancake-flipping contests, on Saturday Night Live and on the stump while doing passable imitations of the impassioned scenes from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But rewards for empty geniality and vacuous charm can hardly be cited as evidence of the depredations of postmodern politics. Because finally, you’ve got to make up your mind, and you’ve got to know what you think. “In the end,” Mr. Reeves said, “each President is remembered for two or three big things. Nobody remembers whether Lincoln balanced the budget.” Yes, American history is filled with leaders whose dyspeptic public demeanors would render them unelectable today: either member of the Adams family, for example. But personality and image, too, have always been part of the electoral dynamic, which is why Abraham Lincoln’s handlers played up his log-cabin roots and backwoodsman Andrew Jackson delighted in tormenting the Eastern elites and their high-minded institutions.

Democrats are the party eternally in search of the philosopher-king-Stevenson, Cuomo. Republicans run against pointy-heads, even-remember Woodrow Wilson-when it’s to their disadvantage. The intellectual community is part of the cultural elite which Republicans, including conservative thinkers, love to loathe. With good reason: the great political turnaround of the last 32 years has seen the Republican Party-the traditional party of business and country clubs-converting their Hoover-era elitism and the anger of their dispossession from power during the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society into populist denunciations of the era’s new elite, the chattering classes. That’s why they were so undone and infuriated by Bill Clinton. President Clinton, said Mr. Reeves, “has intelligence like radar-he seems to understand what those people out there think and want and know. At his best, Al Gore has the intelligence of a scholar. An introvert. I don’t know much about emotional I.Q., but that’s what Clinton has.”

George W. Bush talks with easy familiarity about trailer-dwellers in the Bible Belt. When a Democrat well-respected for her intellect came to New York in search of a Senate seat, she first toured the state to see how ordinary people live.

Of course, Hillary Rodham Clinton may well have learned more about New York than George W. Bush has about double-wides. But neither of them has nearly as strong a visceral sense of the Presidency or the American voter as the man whose P.Q. is practically off the charts, and the man who is most likely to be George W. Bush’s opponent in 2004, Bill Clinton.

Additional reporting by Ian Blecher and Greg Sargent

So What If George W.’s a Dope?