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Jewish World Review Jan. 25, 2000/ 18 Shevat, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Smarting over presidential smarts -- IS GEORGE W. smart enough to be president?

Is John McCain even-tempered enough?

Has Al Gore, in his new earth tones, finally morphed from beta to alpha male? Despite his descent into "negative campaigning,'' is Bill Bradley still an ethical enough fellow to follow Bill Clinton to the White House?

Can Steve Forbes find charisma?

Can Gary Bauer grow tall enough to match the depth he sometimes shows in answers to questions in the debates?

Maybe the answers to all of these questions is yes, but that still wouldn't necessarily tell us what kind of president these men would make.

Some men are thinkers, others are doers. Only occasionally is the same man both. On the political landscape, where we find our presidents, men and women stretch across the bell curve, and most presidential candidates cluster in the center.

Alas, the pundits want to pigeon-hole everyone, tagging every candidate with a label. This is convenient for pundits, but inconvenient for the rest of us. But the labels often stick, and we're left to argue over definitions.

A professor at Princeton University asks his students to choose one word to describe the Great Book they've just read. The exercise is fun, if not terribly illuminating. For example, the professor suggests "justice'' for Dante. A Jane Austen novel might be "character'' or "marriage.'' You could use "irony'' for Socrates, "oxymoron'' for Nietzsche (who spoke about man's "irrefutable errors.'') Such is one academic game that illustrates how simplistic labels can be.

The debate over George W.'s smarts similarly misses the point. While decrying the shallow irrelevance of the pop quiz he failed on the names of foreign leaders in obscure "hot spots,'' his critics continue to use it to brand him as intellectually-challenged. Few question the brainy gene bank of Barbara and George the Elder, but critics suggest George W. did not make the most of the genes by studying hard enough.

But what do we mean by smarts anyway?

When Adlai Stevenson ran against Dwight D. Eisenhower, he was derided as an "egghead'' Hamlet, who dithered long over too many options to make up his mind while it still mattered. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, is so smart he can brilliantly synthesize complex concepts and debate the meaning of "is.'' Harry Truman didn't go to college -- he didn't even finish high school -- but he was smart enough to organize the Marshall Plan that put Europe back on its feet after World War II. Woodrow Wilson was a university president, but he was a bit of a high-minded failure as president.

What we really want in a president is someone who knows how to lead the nation for its own good despite what the polls say, to make the hard decisions, to surround himself with men who will speak truth to power no matter what, who use politics for the good of the country rather than solely for his own good.

The voters should trust their instincts and not allow a candidate to get away with pandering for partisan political reasons. Voters usually do. A president must know when to fight, when to compromise, when to lose.

In the Information Age it's as important for a leader to know what to regard as crucial as it is to know what to discard. They don't teach that at Harvard or Yale. But the public has responsibilities, too. The Internet, for example, can be a tool for democracy but it can be a plaything for fools. Good information can sweep across computer monitors around the world in seconds, but so can a factoid -- something that in Norman Mailer's term, sounds like a fact, but isn't. It's more important than ever to discriminate between fact and falsehood, to separate trivial from substantive.

Liberal partisans who dismiss George W. as an intellectual lightweight forget that he's not running for president of the faculty senate. Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher, wasn't talking about presidential candidates when he identified the qualities voters should look for in a president, but he was on point: a fusion of intelligence and action. "Intelligence,'' he said, "is quickness to apprehend as distinct from ability, which is capacity to act wisely on the thing apprehended.'' Voters have to be smart enough to apprehend that.


01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate