Friday, September 09, 2005

The Pollyanna President

Unlike Scrivener [via IHE], I don't really think that Bush is dumb in a straightforward intellectual sense. Odds are good he's as smart as I am, and in some ways (like remembering people's names and faces) he's probably considerably higher on the scale. Whether it's his ability to pick people or innate, he's a damned sight better at political strategy than I am (though, to be fair, I've never really been put to the test, as nobody has ever taken my political advice in an actual competitive campaign).

What he lacks is, in my view, two crucial things: empathy and compassion, a really strong moral sense, but that's not the issue here*, at least I don't think it is; and the sense that bad things can happen. Foresight, and the understanding that "risk" means that sometimes things go wrong, seems to be entirely lacking from the politics and policies of this administration. "No one could have foreseen..." is, as Scrivener and others have noted, flat out wrong, in addition to being prima facie evidence of the administration's failure to consider accident and failure as possibilities.

The entire Iraq war and reconstruction has been a whole series of high-risk policies which failed to go as planned, resulting in embarrassing retrenchments and redirections, not to mention unnecessary human suffering in the present and foreseeable (if you do that sort of thing) future. New Orleans was a high-risk city: everyone who seriously calculated the odds knew that disaster was a matter of time. New Orleans' great charm is not its luck, but its sang froid in the face of the inevitable. New Orleans is not a city of wishers and hopers, like our administration: it's a city of people who live in the past and present like there is no tomorrow. It would be an insult to the city to say that we have a New Orleans kind of president, because he insists on making plans for others, instead of living life for himself.

* Though, as Anne Zook says, "'Incestuous nepotism' doesn't even begin to describe these people and the inbreeding is producing some monstrous results." Though it would be somewhat hypocritical for Congress to impeach as incompetent cabinet members and agency directors they already confirmed, it's hypocrisy even I can live with. Repudiating the sins of the past is the right kind of hypocrisy. But they must redeem themselves: we can't do it for them.


Scrivener said...

Actually, I don't think we disagree much at all, except that maybe I'm using "smart" and "dumb" a little differently than you. I said in my original post that "he is savvy and politically cunning." In my book, when you say that he is completely lacking in "Foresight, and the understanding that 'risk' means that sometimes things go wrong" you are saying he is dumb too. At least, I would call that dumb.

I'm just trying to say that we are fundamentally in agreement here. I certainly think just saying "Dumbya" is not only politically useless but also innacurate--he's not a stupid person exactly. He's certainly cunning and savvy and yeah he's probably pretty good at reading people and remembering names and stuff like that, all traits of a certain kind of intelligence.

And the right has been claiming those are the only kinds of intelligence that matter in American politics. They have said repeatedly that it doesn't matter that Dubya lacks "book smarts," that he doesn't read and understand complex arguments, that he can't make sense of statistical data, that he can't recognize risk, that he can't look at a situation and imagine possible future ramifications of choices.

The whole point of my post was to say that those aspects of intelligence, that the right has dismissed, are absolutely crucial to a President. It's not enough to have a President who is savvy. We need a President who is intelligent in the classic sense of the term--a critical thinker, a smart reader, someone with imaginative ability.

Ahistoricality said...

You're right, mostly. I just have a bad reaction against using the language of stupidity too broadly for two reasons: it's not clear enough, and its too personal. When we use terms like "dumb" and "stupid" it's too easy for the Republicans to challenge that label by pointing out his actually abilities (or putting out misinformation about his reading habits) -- and while those may be the important ones politically, they're not policy skills and I think we need to emphasize the difference. I think he plays up the dumb schtick because it's useful.

Second, it makes it look personal. My problem with Bush isn't his character, or personality, though I find those pretty appalling. It's the fact that he governs poorly in a highly partisan fashion. But the Republican machine would like everyone to think that we've got some kind of personal vendetta, some kind of cultural distaste, some sort of rabid overreaction going on, and insulting personal language plays into that.

You're right, we basically agree on the problem, but tactically I think that more direct, less easily deflected language is called for.