When presidents get the 'dummy' treatment
WASHINGTON — Well, once again we have a president who is being depicted by the Democrats as less than smart and is beating them up politically.
I first noticed this phenomenon early in the 1950s, when the Democrats were contending that all General Eisenhower had as a GOP presidential candidate was a winning smile and an impressive war record. The Democrats' candidate, the sophisticated Adlai Stevenson, was - as the Democrats saw it - so much smarter than Ike. They compared Eisenhower's dull speeches with Stevenson's splendid oratory. But Eisenhower was preferred by the voters - by decisive margins. While covering the 1956 presidential campaign as a newsman I noticed how many "I Like Ike" signs there were at rallies for Stevenson. Indeed, it seemed that just about everyone liked Eisenhower, even those who voted against him.
Then there was, as portrayed by the Democrats, that dumb actor, Ronald Reagan, running against that very smart fellow, Jimmy Carter, in 1980. All Mr. Reagan could do, his adversaries claimed, was to read speeches written by others and act presidential.
Also, of course, Reagan was very likable. And "very likable" trumped "smart" in Reagan's race against Mr. Carter and four years later in his contest with Fritz Mondale.
The negative assessment of Eisenhower's intelligence was way off the mark. Just read some of his post-presidency writings. I interviewed him twice at Gettysburg, after he retired, and found a man who was exceptionally sharp.
I had more than a dozen interviews with Reagan, first when he was running for governor of California, then when he was governor, then when he was running for president, and then when he was president. His answers rarely varied.
For one thing, he was totally certain that the Soviet Union should be faced with a big US military buildup. He stuck to that thesis and historians now are giving him credit for a show of military muscle that was so important in ending the cold war.
Reagan had a few things that he believed in fervently - such as anticommunism and conservatism - and that's about all he would talk about. But, as president, he could deliver that message clearly and soon won the accolade - even from his critics - as the "Great Communicator."
How smart is George W. Bush?
One political adversary commented, after Mr. Bush's midterm achievements, that he considered Bush "dumb like a fox."
His critics, who comb every comment he makes, looking for malapropisms and scripted answers, are deciding that Bush isn't that dumb after all. They're scoring him high on judgment, particularly after he made the risky - but so successful - decision to inject himself so fully in the elections.
I've always thought the charge that George W. was a dull knife was a bad rap. you have to be pretty smart to get through Yale (even with average grades), earn an MBA at Harvard, and become a successful Texas governor.
Bush's father, Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, wasn't exempt from accusations that he lacked brains.
His critics loved to ridicule his responses to questions at press conferences, where he often spoke in fragmented sentences.
But no president got the "dummy" treatment from the press more than Gerald Ford.
Mr. Ford's critics in the media equated his slow speaking with slow thinking.
And when he would have mishaps - like hitting his golf ball into the crowds watching a match in which he was participating - this, somehow, would be offered as proof that here was a fellow who was a mental blunderer.
I was at the Brussels airport when Mr. Ford slipped and fell as he came down the ramp from the plane.
Immediately the media jumped on this as another example of this clumsiness and slow thinking. Well, Ford finished in the upper third of his Yale law-school class. And he was arguably the most athletic, best-coordinated person to occupy the presidency. He had been an all-star football player at the University of Michigan.
But back to George W. I think that he has silenced the ridicule about his intelligence - at least for the time being.