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Will the 'Slow' Candidate Win the Big Race?

By Howard Kurtz, Washington Post,
Thursday , October 26, 2000 ; Page C01

The gloves are really off now.

Faced with the very real possibility that George W. Bush could win the White House in 12 days, some left-leaning journalists are flat-out calling him dumb--and blaming the press for not persuading the country of his utter unsuitability.

The question of Bush's IQ has been a campaign subtext ever since he flunked a Boston TV reporter's quiz on foreign leaders. But now, with the election on the line, some of Bush's critics have come out of the closet to advertise their disdain.

Slate Editor Michael Kinsley writes that "journalists' reluctance to call someone who may well be our next commander in chief a moron is understandable. But if George W. Bush isn't a moron, he is a man of impressive intellectual dishonesty and/or confusion."

Author Todd Gitlin says in Salon that "Bush gives ample evidence that he does not reason. . . . Bush has gotten a pass on most of his slipshod ways," while journalists are "embarrassed to point fingers at a nonentity who is within two weeks of the presidency."

In the International Herald Tribune, former assistant editor Hope Keller declares: "Most American political commentators today are so timid, so mealymouthed, so committed to a distorted ethic of fairness that they are unable to state the obvious about George W. Bush: that he is unfit to be president."

Come on, tell us what you really think.

Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, sees "a little whiff of desperation" in such accusations. "A lot of liberal journalists don't want to admit that there have been issues that have worked for Bush," he says, citing education, health care and tax cuts. "You get a sense of, why is Gore blowing it?"

Not everyone believes Bush's lack of policy wonkiness is a liability. Robert Bartley, the Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor, writes that Bush "has no intellectual pretensions; he's not even afraid to say he'd consult his advisers."

But Bush's critics are almost apoplectic. Gitlin, a New York University professor who calls Bush an "airhead," sees a "collective abdication" by the press. "There's a bending-over-backward phenomenon because a lot of reporters lean Democratic," he says. "They are in a state of recoil against the charge of 'liberal media.' It's obvious that this is a lightweight who's been given a pass his whole life."

Kinsley, whose column appears in The Washington Post, has a different take. "It's sort of a political correctness thing: You don't call people stupid," he says. "And it's partially a populist thing: You don't want to seem like an intellectual snob. It fits into the whole stereotype of liberal egghead journalists being biased against the conservative."

Another reason for journalistic hesitation, he says, is Ronald Reagan. "Reagan is considered to have been a successful president--not by me, but by most people--despite not being razor-sharp," Kinsley says. "It's not a fatal disability for a president. But I'm not afraid to say I'd prefer a smarter person to a dumber person."

Neither, apparently, is Richard Press, who writes in a New York Times "Op-Art" feature on Bush: "I'm worried that he's barely able to string a sentence together unless he's been heavily coached. . . . I'm worried that the so-called liberal media don't seem to think any of this is a big deal."

Even commentators who also criticize Vice President Gore have focused on Bush's candlepower, or lack thereof. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd: "Al may lose to a Bush who doesn't know a lot and concedes that his serious life began only at 40." New Yorker Editor David Remnick calls Bush "an incurious governor who disdains the federal government he hopes so desperately to lead." Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant writes: "It is hard to believe the country is poised to make the same huge mistake it made 20 years ago. But it is."

These refrains come as Gore's campaign is dispatching high-profile surrogates and staffers to disparage Bush's intellect. "I seemed to notice a large number of senators and congressmen saying, 'Jeez, what an idiot,' " Oliphant says.

But Oliphant says he was slamming Bush's fiscal policies, not his smarts, in his column. "I don't doubt his capacity at all," he says. "I've always considered him a fairly impressive fellow."

The New Republic, owned by Gore confident Martin Peretz, doesn't quite share that view. "Doesn't a man who asks for public power and public trust have a moral obligation to be intelligent about public issues?" the magazine says in endorsing Gore. "In Texas, after all, Bush's lack of understanding of, or engagement with, the substance of government has had unmistakable moral effects."

Is the IQ issue resurfacing now because of a sudden realization that Bush may beat Gore? Peretz says his friends in the media and elsewhere "weren't in denial about the possibility he might win. They were in denial about what the consequences would be."

But as analysts question why Gore, buoyed by a great economy, has been unable to put away the race, emotions toward Bush are clearly heightened. "I get a sense there's resentment building: How can this guy be president, and besides, he stole our issues," says David Corn, Washington bureau chief of the liberal Nation magazine. "They can't believe the American public would elect George W. Bush, either because he's deficient on intelligence or doesn't have the right kind of experience."

Of course journalists may be wary of pushing this issue too far. "What if somebody started raising questions about our capacity?" Oliphant says. "I wouldn't want to have to defend that turf."

2000 The Washington Post

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