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
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
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
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
2000 The Washington Post