When a U.S. president has a 40% approval rating, critics declare open season. Last week Britain's Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had to deny a report that he had called the Bush administration "crap" in a private meeting with fellow Labour Party members of parliament. But Harry Cohen, a Labour MP, stood by his account and went on to claim Mr. Prescott had also called Mr. Bush "just a cowboy with his Stetson on."
Foreigners' deriding Mr. Bush isn't big news, but doubts about the president may be spreading to his domestic media allies. A National Review editorial this month concluded the president has a problem connecting with the American people on Iraq: "It is time for the Bush administration to acknowledge that its approach of assuring people that progress is being made and operating on that optimistic basis in Iraq isn't working."
Joe Scarborough, a conservative MSBNC talk-show host and former GOP congressman from Florida, is even questioning the president's mental skills. Last week he devoted a segment on his program (a segment on which I was a guest) to the question: "Is our president an idiot? . . . Is George Bush playing dumb or is he just plain dumb?" The next day he wrote on HuffingtonPost.com that while Republican presidents are routinely an unfair "target of ridicule from liberal circles" he has noticed that now "Republicans are quietly joining the left in questioning the President's intellectual prowess." He says that "former administration officials still close to the White House will tell you Mr. Bush detests dissent, embraces a narrow world view and is intellectually incurious."
For years knocks on Mr. Bush's intelligence have served as a substitute for arguing against the substance of his ideas. Indeed, the modern media age is replete with examples of prominent Republicans who have been ridiculed for being dim. Eisenhower was mocked for spending more time on golf courses than in briefing rooms, and Reagan was deemed "an amiable dunce" by Democratic wise man Clark Clifford. Today historians have revised the popular opinion of both men. Ike is seen as a crafty strategist who enjoyed being underestimated by his critics. As for Reagan, even former New York Times editor Howell Raines has admitted that "Clifford got indicted for bank fraud and the dunce ended the Cold War and the entire Soviet era."
For some reason, Democrats never get tagged with the "'stupid" label. When I've asked journalists and political scientists if any leading liberal has developed a general media image as intellectually limited in recent years, they always draw a blank. Clearly, a certain amount of bias is at work, since stupidity knows no ideology.
Consider the treatment that the past two Democratic nominees received. Mr. Bush has been routinely pilloried for having been less than academically inclined while attending Yale and Harvard Business School. But when the Washington Post revealed Al Gore's unimpressive academic record, which included sophomore grades at Harvard that were "lower than any semester recorded on Bush's transcript from Yale," the media yawned.
They had a similar reaction to the news that Mr. Bush's SAT scores were higher than both those of John Kerry. Linda Gottfredson, a co-director of the University of Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society, told United Press International columnist Steve Sailer in 2004 that when she converted Mr. Bush's SAT score to an IQ, "I derived an IQ of 125, which is the 95th percentile." A study in the latest issue of the academic journal Political Psychology concludes that "Bush is definitely intelligent . . . in the upper range of college graduates in raw intellect."
Everyone has long known the president is no Pericles. One of Mr. Bush's friends cheerfully admitted to me once that "every morning George gets up and arm-wrestles the English language all day. He often loses." Many bright people are inarticulate. Albert Einstein was dyslexic, and his lectures in both English and German were said to be full of malapropisms and gaffes. Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, a host at sports radio station WFAN in New York, is famous for his synaptic misfirings, but his depth of sports knowledge is encyclopedic and he holds an audience with style and panache..
Indeed, Jacob Weisberg, the editor of Slate.com, who has compiled the definitive collection of verbal presidential flubs he calls "Bushisms," says Mr. Bush's verbal difficulties appear to represent "some kind of linguistic deficit akin to dyslexia that does not indicate a lack of mental capacity per se. Bush also compensates with his nonverbal acumen." Voltaire long ago observed that common sense is both more rare and more desirable in leaders than mere intelligence.
That said, Mr. Bush's failure to articulate his policies is helping to drive down his approval ratings and to fuel suspicions that he is intellectually insular. Most damning is Mr. Scarborough's observation that Mr. Bush's battles with the English language are getting "worse with age." When he reviewed tapes of Mr. Bush as Texas governor, Mr. Scarborough says, he saw "a funny, self-assured public figure who inspires confidence. But these days, the mere opening of Mr. Bush's mouth makes many GOP loyalists shake in their tasseled loafers."
Some observers date the growing hesitancy and lack of clarity in Mr. Bush's public presentations to the deteriorating situation in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. "Everything he does now, he is allowed no margin of error on these kinds of gaffes," says Lawrence O'Donnell, a former Democratic congressional staffer. "If Iraq was a real policy success, that guy could fall down everywhere he went and he would be getting standing ovations."
And that is the fundamental issue in the debate over Bush's Brain. Iraq is not going well, and when the going is tough, a president needs to be able to make a clear, vigorous defense of his policies. That clearly isn't happening right now, and the doubts about the president are starting to grow and threaten to further limit his effectiveness.
Mr. Bush is a stubborn man, one who almost relishes the contempt in which policy elites hold him. But he has shown a willingness to open himself up to new ideas and people when things get bad enough. Earlier this year he stabilized management of his dysfunctional White House by bringing in Josh Bolten as a more hands-on chief of staff. He then increased the firepower of the White House press office by hiring the savvy Tony Snow.
Things are a little better now, but only a little. The president's recent news conferences and speeches have been shaky enough that the doubts are clearly not receding. Some rethinking of how Mr. Bush has let public confidence in his foreign policy slip away is in order.
The world is watching. Even though he paid a price for it, Sen. Joe Lieberman was right when he wrote last November in The Wall Street Journal that "it's time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years. And that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation's peril."
At the same time, Republicans should remember what Mr. Lieberman wrote immediately afterwards: "It is time for Republicans in the White House and Congress who distrust Democrats to acknowledge that greater Democratic involvement and support in the war in Iraq is critical to rebuilding the support of the American people that is essential to our success in that war."
Mr. Bush may not be an articulate president, but he has to find a better way to reach out to all Americans but especially Democrats and independents of good will to ensure the nation doesn't suffer another foreign-policy disaster à la Vietnam.