Calling the Bush bluff

Bragging is a part of politics. That's why every four years we hear things like, "My administration has brought us the longest peacetime economic expansion in our history." Or, "I was able to build and hold together the coalition that fought and won the Gulf War." Or the always popular, "I invented the Internet."

In America we are conflicted about this kind of talk. Like good prospective employers, we want to hear politicians make the case for why we should put them in office. At the same time, no one likes a big mouth.

And while we understand that speeches and heroic stories of political derring-do are really nothing more than a candidate giving us his verbal rsum, we can't help but feel there's a little bit of padding going on.

Part of us knows, or at the very least suspects, that Bill Clinton is not wholly responsible for the economy, that George Bush senior didn't really win the Gulf War, and that Al Gore was not holed up at a computer terminal for 20 years "creating" the Internet.

All of which may help explain George W. Bush's main political strategy - something we might call the "aw-shucks" school of politics.

Since this campaign's beginning, Bush has gone out of his way to emphasize the idea that he is, above all else, a regular guy. Al Gore may be an Ivy League egghead, but W., he's a straight-talking man of the people - a man who prefers his briefings on one page of 8-1/2-by-11-in. paper, a man who may not be a genius but who is smart enough.

Of course, there is still some conventional bragging.

Not one of the 127 executions to take place on his watch involved an innocent person. Texas is roaring along because of his work - even while the nation as a whole is roaring along.

But it is set off with the "I'm just an average guy" stuff. And lately, that stuff is hitting new heights.

Last week, The New York Times reports, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson told a crowd of how he and Bush once sat together at a conference and celebrated the fact that they didn't know what the speaker was talking about.

"George turns to me and says, 'What are they talking about?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'You don't know a thing, do you?' And I said, 'Not one thing.' He said, 'Neither do I.' And we kind of high-fived."

And this was a speech from a supporter.

Coming soon: The hilarious long-division foul-up. And the story about that one time when Bush laughed so hard at dinner, milk came out of his nose.

Last Friday, when a journalist asked Bush a question about foreign affairs, the candidate said he still had a long way to go to understand the topic well, but that's OK because the American people don't expect the president to know everything.

True enough. No one expects the president to know everything - that's what advisers are for. Besides, those who cover Bush closely say he is by no means an incompetent boob - and this usually seeps into the coverage of W.

So why the act? Why poke fun at your own intellectual ability in public, and then assure reporters in private that it's all in fun. In short, Bush is trying to have it both ways.

He criticizes his opponent for attending private school, while maintaining that he made due with public elementary school. Of course, he generally forgets to mention he also attended Phillips Academy at Andover, Mass., for high school and Yale for college.

He brags about how he doesn't know a whole heck of a lot, and then gets outraged when a reporter throws a pop quiz at him.

The problem with this is it raises a valid question for journalists: Which Bush is the real Bush? There's nothing wrong with playing the populist, even in admitting that you don't know everything. At some level it's refreshing to see a politician who admits he doesn't know the answer.

But Bush isn't just admitting he doesn't know everything, he's reveling in the idea that he doesn't know much. And if that's the game you wish to play, you have to be willing to accept questions about whether you are smart enough for the job. As ridiculous as pop quizzes are, you have to be willing to face them too.

The real questions Bush raises are larger than himself. Just what exactly are the qualifications for president? Experience? Vision? If we don't care that the most powerful man in the world is intelligent, why do we care that anyone is?

Bush's people may insist the aw-shucks attitude is all an act, but as long as it's a primary theme of this campaign, pop quizzes and questions of intellectual capability remain on the table.

What is a better qualification for president: average guy or egghead?

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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