In this Politico article, Jonathan Martin dares to ask an important, if perhaps impolitic, question: Is Rick Perry dumb? Martin writes, “Another Texas governor who drops his “g’s” and scorns elites is running for president and the whispers are the same: lightweight, incurious, instinctual. Strip away the euphemisms and Rick Perry is confronting an unavoidable question: Is he dumb — or just ‘misunderestimated?’”
This is a great question. Now that polls show Perry leading the Republican field, we have a right to know: Is he “Bush, but without the brains?” Can we be sure that he’s stupid enough to serve as President?
Note that we have a long history of electing – and reelecting – intellectual lightweights to the highest position in the land. Start with FDR, architect of the New Deal and Supreme Allied commander during World War II. He certainly lacked the brains to be president. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes – no intellectual slouch – famously described FDR as having “a second-class intellect, but a first class temperament. Noted social critic H.L. Mencken tabbed him “Roosevelt minor”. Columnist Walter Lippmann called Roosevelt “a pleasant man who, without any qualifications for office, would very much like to be president.” These guys were experts, mind you, so they knew what they were talking about.
Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, didn’t have much on the ball either. A failed haberdasher, Truman’s best attribute was his Bush-like certitude when it came to decisionmaking. But brains? Not Harry – he was a simple man with a simple mind.
By the same token, when smart people have run for President, Americans have usually had the foresight not to elect them. Think Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois “egghead” beloved by the liberal intelligentsia, but who was twice defeated by that genial if not particularly bright Republican Dwight Eisenhower. I know Eisenhower orchestrated the D-Day invasion and all, but did you ever hear him mangle the English language during one of his press conferences? A nice guy, but none too bright. Remember, as President Ike did a lot of golfing, but that was pretty much it.
And let’s not forget Ronald Reagan. There’s a reason that very smart journalist Haynes Johnson titled his book about the Reagan years Sleepwalking Through History. Reagan was, as Democratic strategist Clark Clifford famously put it, an “amiable dunce.” Americans recognized his lack of intelligence, and reelected him to a second term. It was by sheer luck that Reagan was in office when the Cold War, in effect, ended. And the economic growth on his watch happened despite his policies, not because of them.
And no discussion of truly stupid presidents would be complete without reference to perhaps the dumbest of them all: George W. Bush. Another President rewarded for his ignorance with a second term, Bush – if pundits are to be believed – might be the stupidest guy to ever occupy the Oval Office. Jacob Weisberg once wrote, “The question I am most frequently asked about Bushisms is, “Do you really think the president of the United States is dumb? The short answer is yes.” Weisberg defends Bush, however, by noting that he wasn’t necessarily born stupid – he just chose “stupidity” as president. Hmmm….maybe, but I’m not ready to dismiss the idea that Bush was dumb from birth. Never mind what he did as President – just focus on those Bushisms: “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” or “Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we” or this gem, “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Yep, these are proof enough that Bush is a genuine idiot. And to think we almost elected Al Gore! In fact, Gore fooled a lot of us in 2000 with that slow Tennessee drawl – can you say “lock box?” – but we should have caught on that he was really smart when he kept rolling his eyes at Bush’s answers during their first debate. I mean, this guy went to Harvard! Since he’s left office, of course, he’s proved how smart he is by jumping on the climate change bandwagon, making documentaries and winning a Nobel prize. It was lucky for us the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount.
I know, I know, if stupidness is a prerequisite to become president, how do you explain the smart guys who made it? See, for example, Jimmy Carter, who graduated in the top 10% of his class at the Naval Academy and went on to serve in the nuclear navy, not to mention winning his own Nobel Prize and writing scads of books. However, as the Carter case shows, Americans believe in the adage, “Fool me once…”. Once they recognized how smart Carter was, they threw him out. You didn’t see that happening with FDR, Truman, Ike, Reagan or Bush. You have to be authentically stupid to win a second term.
So, should Perry start measuring the Oval Office drapes? Not so fast. Just because Obama, a Harvard Law school grad, now occupies the White House doesn’t mean he’s sure to be defeated in 2012. Maybe Obama’s really not that smart? Certainly he’s been opening some eyes on that score during his first term. As evidence, note that he’s largely adopted the parameters of the Bush War on Terror. And he extended the Bush tax cuts. Heck, lots of progressives view his presidency as, in effect, Bush’s third term. It takes a certain lack of intelligence to emulate anything Bush did, don’t you think? Makes you wonder if maybe Obama does deserve to win reelection.
In any case, Perry can’t be given a free pass to the Presidency – he has to conclusively prove that he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to earn the job on his own. Dropping your “g’s” and hailing from Texas isn’t enough for me. Nor is the fact that Texas voters reelected him as Governor more times than anyone, and that under his watch the Texas economy gained jobs despite a nationwide recession. And the fact that really smart journalists and other pundits are convinced Perry is stupid isn’t proof either. After all, they might be wrong. I’m just not sure.
Keep in mind that – if those in media are to be believed (and why shouldn’t they be?) – Perry is competing for the Republican nomination against some first-class dumbasses. Think Bachmann’s rewrite of colonial history, or Paul’s rants regarding the Federal Reserve. Cain doesn’t seem all that bright either. Gingrich has his moments too. And there’s always Palin - she’s the moron waiting in the wings. Yes, I know they’ve all won elected office multiple times or are successful in business, but if I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times from the pundits (many of whom are really really smart, of course): this is one slow-witted Republican field. Certainly Perry has his work cut out for him.
At this point I think the jury is still out.
Rick Perry. Is he dumb enough to be President?