It's the War, Stupid!

The Washington Post on Sunday, Nov. 10, printed an article (not a column) by David Von Drehle “reporting” on the alleged fact that snobby liberal elites lost the recent elections because folksy dumb guys like George W. are much more likable.

Von Drehle didn’t discuss any particular election, didn’t name a single liberal elitist (except Adlai Stevenson, who apparently lost to Eisenhower for the same reason), and didn’t even name a single likable down-to-earth Republican, other than the “president,” who was not even on any ballots.

Von Drehle’s whole thesis depends on a claim that voters voted for Bush and that Democrats generally, or even without exception — or at least the ones who lost — are snobby anguished intellectuals.

While I think Von Drehle makes an excellent point that brains are not the most important characteristic of an elected official, and while I agree that Bush influenced voters, I think the most likely reasons for the election’s outcome have nothing to do with which party is more folksy.

Democrats have so many real problems that I am reluctant to pile a mythical one on top of them. The only “elitist” behavior Von Drehle was able to cite was ridicule of Bush’s malapropisms. But how many candidates actually engaged in such ridicule? How many even questioned the President’s intellectual abilities? None that I heard, and none that Von Drehle bothered to name.

What does it mean to be an elitist anyway? Von Drehle suggests that it has something to do with speaking French. But what Democrats, since Jackie Kennedy, go around talking French? The “president” is the most prominent elected official who regularly speaks in a foreign language (and I mean Spanish, not West Texas Ebonics).

Another sort of elite has been given some attention in recent months, the elite of wealth. George W. may be dumber than any number of plants in the Rose Garden, but he and his cronies are the wealthiest cabinet ever and the cabinet most plagued by financial scandals at least in recent memory. The head of the SEC was forced out on Election Day for engaging in the sort of plutocratic elitism that would force Bush out too were it not for another factor – and I don’t mean his charming dimwittedness. I mean September 11.

Von Drehle is right. Outstanding intellect is not what’s needed to write and vote for bills or to negotiate with other elected officials. What’s needed is decency and character. Neither of our major parties has much of these. Our Senate lost the better share of its integrity in Paul Wellstone’s plane crash – a crash that also, incidentally, cost the Senate its folksiest, most down-to-earth, plain-spoken member. Many people do think elected officials should have outstanding intellects, just as others are happy to elect a government composed largely of millionaires. I’d like to join Von Drehle in opposing any such elitism.

What makes Bush so popular, and what made Eisenhower popular for that matter, is not brains or lack thereof. Bush did not become stupid, or smart for that matter, on September 11. In fact, he didn’t do anything at all that can be pointed to as the cause of his dramatic rise in popularity. He just happened to be sitting in his ill-gotten throne when disaster struck. War makes presidents popular. Americans don’t want a dumb guy they can chat with. They want a Daddy who can comfort them with simple phrases while they curl up and suck their thumbs.

Yes, Von Drehle is right: Bush’s simplicity makes him popular. But this is not because people find him affable. It’s because people are scared. Michael Moore’s recent movie “Bowling for Columbine” included a clip of Bush warning the country. The point was not that he mispronounced anything (he didn’t), it was that he declared the country in a state of frightening emergency without so much as hinting at what the specific danger was in that particular instance. There’s nothing likable about telling everyone they are in mysterious mortal danger, but there is something paternal in declaring that you will protect them from the evildoers.

Von Drehle quotes Bush saying that the people of Islamic nations want freedom. According to Von Drehle this constitutes Bush’s argument that those nations’ governments will collapse, “as surely as communism did.” Von Drehle claims that unnamed intellectuals find Bush’s comment unsophisticated and na

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