From the Chait Vault: Race to the Bottom

by Amanda Silverman | January 25, 2010

Another Chait classic is this 1999 gem, written just about a year before the public--er, the Supreme Court--delivered us President George W. Bush. Turns out Sarah Palin wasn't the first one to epically fail a journalist's "pop-quiz." After Bush was unable to name various heads of state in an interview, Jon argues why in the 2000 election, it was smart to be dumb:

It would seem, on the face of it, that the only thing standing between George W. Bush and the presidency is a persistent reservation about his intellect. The doubts have crystallized around a reporter's now-famous pop quiz, in which the Texas governor could not identify various difficult-to-pronounce heads of state. Bush, according to many in the press, needs to wonk himself up, and fast. He needs to cocoon himself with all those Stanford Ph.D.s and reemerge with a deep, studied interest in the stability of Central Asia and the efficacy of scattered-site housing. He needs to throw out some acronyms and cite some studies, maybe quote Hayek now and then. He must learn to mask his boredom with the daily grind of government. If he could only show some mastery of the issues, he'd be a brilliant candidate.

Nonsense. Bush hasn't done a bad job of masking his boredom with the details of governance; he's done an excellent job of flaunting it. When asked by Tucker Carlson of Talk magazine to enumerate his weaknesses, Bush baldly replied, "Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something." In another moment with Carlson, Bush reported having read a profile of Al Gore by Louis Menand in which the vice president discusses Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception. This prompts Menand's observation that "it is a little hard to imagine having this conversation with George W. Bush." Bush does not take umbrage at this slight to his mental capacities. Instead, he sees in it proof of his political virtuosity. "Bush finished the piece," writes Carlson, "convinced that Gore lacks the warmth and personal appeal necessary to win a presidential race." More recently, Bush advisers have confided their pleasure at the pop quiz "fiasco," saying it makes their man seem like a normal guy. 

Be sure to check out the whole thing here.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/jonathan-chait/the-chait-vault-race-the-bottom