Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Baby Bush 

A specious, feebly-reasoned column by the usually redoubtable Dahlia Lithwick in tomorrow's NY Times:
What's wrong with continuing efforts to characterize Mr. Bush as a not-particularly-smart third grader? For one thing, it plays to every stereotype of liberals as snotty know-it-alls who think everyone in a red state is anti-intellectual or simple-minded. It answers name-calling from the right with name-calling from the left . . . .

One of the most enduring memories from the Bush-Gore debates in 2000 was Al Gore, all sighs and eye-rolls, trapped in what must have felt like the middle-school playground fight from hell instead of a presidential debate. Everything about Mr. Gore's demeanor signaled that he felt he was giving a punk kid a much-needed scolding. Which missed the point: a lot of very smart people voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 because to them, he represented a return to honesty and morality. Dismissing him as a stupid child, and these voters as stupid-children-by-association, is no way to win them back.

Furthermore, the campaign to cast Mr. Bush as a bumbling child ignores the very grown-up machine that stands behind him. Infantilizing the president shifts the focus away from the Cheneys, Rumsfelds, Ashcrofts and Wolfowitzes. These are the men who promised us short, easy wars and painless little suspensions of the Geneva Conventions. These are the men of the secret energy-policy meetings. They aren't a bunch of rowdy juveniles. They represent one of the most secretive, powerful administrations in recent memory. Whether the president could outscore your kids on the SAT is a distraction from that fact.

Finally, there is a psychological consequence to labeling the president an incurious frat boy. With each attempt to cast Mr. Bush as a baby, we craft excuses for his childish behaviors. If Mr. Bush misled us into a war in Iraq, it's because children have trouble telling the truth. If Mr. Bush sees the world in too-stark terms, it's because nuanced reasoning isn't easy for children. With each comparison between the president and a youngster, we subtly lower national expectations and exonerate bad behavior.
Couple of points:

1) We are willing to stipulate that "a lot of very smart people" voted for Bush in 2000 because they thought he "represented a return to honesty and morality." (We know smart people who voted for Bush and we know people who voted for him because they thought he represented a return to honesty and morality, but there's no overlap between the two categories.) If such a group does exist, however, here's the deal: they got rooked. Now there's no shame in that -- fool me once, as the saying used to go -- but if, after four years, these putatively "smart" voters continue to believe that Bush represents anything approaching honesty and morality, then they are stupid children, insusceptible to argument, impervious to fact. If Lithwick thinks they can be lured into the Kerry column by coddling and flattery ("Oooh! Such a smart vote you cast in 2000!"), she's welcome to give it a try.

2) The problem is not that the President is a baby, a child, a youngster, or a boy. The problem is that the most powerful man in the world is an incompetent, pernicious, intellectually incurious fraud who is simply not up to the task of governing. The problem is the yawning gulf between what the job demands and what George Bush brings to it. The problem is that a man who needs to have his two-page daily briefing "orally summarized" because he cannot read it himself has the power to start World War III, and may be well on the way to doing just that. So he's not a baby; he's a baby with a loaded pistol.

3) Lithwick argues that "infantilizing the president shifts the focus away from the Cheneys, Rumsfelds, Ashcrofts and Wolfowitzes." Would painting the president as a strong, bold, decisive, and mature leader somehow shift the spotlight back onto the machinations of his seedy entourage? Of course not. It would merely enhance the cult of personality his handlers have cultivated around him. Understanding that the president is a gormless figurehead is the necessary precondition to understanding that our government is run by the debased aggregation of liars, thieves, lunatics and ideologues that surrounds him. A vote for Bush is therefore not a vote for Bush, but a vote for his regents and courtiers.

Shitty column. Still not as bad as David Brooks.

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