So for several years, I have been arguing that there are traits much more important to the success of a president than brainpower. Self-confidence, curiosity, an eye for talent, the ability to communicate, a temperament that invites collaboration -- all these and more rank higher on the list of desirable presidential traits.
I am not ready to abandon that view. But I am struck by how lucky this country is, at the moment, that the president-elect is a super-smart person like Barack Obama.
Bush 43 has always had bags and bags of self-confidence, alone among Broder's five celebrated presidential "traits." Of the other four, not a trace. (Bush's own definition of "talent" was a doe-eyed devotion to himself, like a school girl with a crush--e.g., Condi Rice, Harriet Myers, and Alberto Gonzales. Not terribly useful to anyone but himself. Most of the "talent" decisions in the Executive Branch were made by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney, whose sense of the term went a different direction, as you'll recall.) Of course, since the Washington press corps, led by Broder, spent years celebrating Bush's decision-making style--the less anatomically squeamish called it his "gut"--there was that much less reason for Bush to cultivate, even late in life, any of the other four traits.
In fact, the very absence of curiosity, communication skills, or collaborative temperament in Bush's makeup were pointed to, with Broder's approval, as evidence of Bush's superiority to Gore as a candidate. It also had something to do with hamburgers, you may recall.
(By the way: To those Americans who inclined toward Bush in 2000 because you thought he'd be more fun to have a hamburger with, did you ever get to have that burger with him? Then maybe it wasn't a very useful criterion, was it? But I digress:)
Last night after Thanksgiving dinner was over and the kids and dog had slipped into turkey-induced comas, the rest of us talked about the question of whether Bush (and Palin) were smart. What we all agreed, although coming at it from different directions, was that if you don't really refine the question more than that, then of course Bush is smart, albeit trivially so. He can't convert Fahrenheit to Centigrade in his head, or tell you anything about Reconstruction, or name an opera. He couldn't finish the NYTimes crossword, even on Monday. He's not that kind of smart. A learning disability, which I've always suspected was behind Bush's famous aversion to reading, wouldn't help. And an interrupted lifetime of substance abuse, possibly resumed of late, couldn't have done much good either. He's also not good at imagining how he's coming across to other people, although he does have enough of a peculiar kind of empathy to make him very good at emotionally manipulating those around him, especially subordinates, and especially then through taunts and insults (a talent he no doubt learned from his mother).
But if that's all that "smart" amounts to, it's not very much. As Gilbert and Sullivan said, if everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody.
But let us take a moment anyway and give thanks that Broder, whose career still centers, inexplicably, around getting paid to give his opinions, is slowly waking up to the fact that the American people might find it to their advantage to have a president for whom "smart" means something more than just "manipulative and photogenic." Not that we deserve it, of course, and certainly not that we have a right to expect it--and above all not that the sycophancy and dishonesty of the Washington press corps and its High Broderism is one important reason we haven't had it for the last eight years. Certainly not that. But, like a free one-year XM satellite radio subscription with a new-car purchase, he's willing to concede that it's something nice if you can get it.
Still, there's nothing like the spectacle of two failed wars, an imploding global economy, and an administration that has all but abdicated leadership--or even public visibility--in the worst times our nation has seen in a century to concentrate even the Broderian mind wonderfully. On one hand, you've got the unflappable and informed Obama now averaging almost a press conference a day, whose purpose seems largely about reassuring the American public and the world that the reins of government will be in more qualified and trustworthy hands soon--if things can only hold together another fifty-some days. On the other hand, we've got the ragtag Bush administration--who could actually be doing something right now (even if it was wrong) if it hadn't squandered its credibility and political capital a long time ago--spending its final months in power down in the bunker, culling its presidential pardon list and pushing through last-minute de-regulatory gifts to favored industries, more as a poke in the eye to the incoming Obama administration, it seems, than because there's any plausible policy reason for any of it.
And now, at long last, comes David Broder, who thinks it might be time for America to experiment with the idea of a president who at least knows what he's doing.
Baby steps, David.