On Native Ground
DEBATES WILL REVEAL THE 'INTELLIGENCE GAP'
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- There will be many contrasts between U.S. Senator John F. Kerry and President George W. Bush that will be seen in Thursday's first presidential debate.
I think the biggest one that Americans will have to consider is the difference between having an intelligent and intellectually curious man in the White House and having a man who seems to be proud of his lack of intellectual curiosity.
Leave aside the policy differences and the campaign styles and focus on this.
Both President Bush (Andover) and Sen. Kerry (St. Paul's) went to upper-crust prep schools. Both went to Yale and partook of an Ivy League education. Both have post-graduate degrees - the President has an MBA from Harvard Business School and Sen. Kerry has a law degree from Boston College Law School.
On paper, the two men have remarkably similar educational experiences. So why does Kerry seem so much more intelligent than Bush?
Is it because Kerry seemed to have worked hard and paid attention in his classes, while the young George Bush coasted on his name and family connections?
Is it because Kerry traveled abroad in his youth while Bush never left North America until he reached middle age? Or maybe it's just that President Bush knows that Americans don't like intelligent people, and that it's best to cultivate an anti-intellectual image if one wants to succeed in public life?
I'm betting on the latter. To me, someone who was privileged to have a taste of the Ivy League while taking a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, it seems almost impossible that a person can receive the sort of top-shelf education that President Bush received and still come out sounding like an ignoramus.
But erudition and intelligence have rarely been viewed as political virtues. We live in a nation where nearly two-thirds of American citizens can't name a single Supreme Court justice and nearly 60 percent can't name a single department in the Bush cabinet; a nation where 85 percent of young Americans, according to National Geographic, can't Afghanistan or Iraq on a map. Despite abundant evidence to the contrary, 42 percent of Americans still think Iraq was behind the 9/11 attacks and 60 percent think U.S. forces have found Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction."
In the face of this level of ignorance, someone like President Bush seems like one of them - despite the President's upper-class upbringing and education - while Sen. Kerry's intelligence marks him as being one of those "effete snobs" (as Spiro Agnew called them) who are overeducated and contemptuous of average folks. President Bush and his handlers know that personality trumps intelligence in a video age where packaging is more important than substance.
The President seems proud of never doing getting more than a "gentleman's C" in his classes. One of his professors at Harvard Business School, Yoshihiro Tsurumi, recalled young Bush as being "very shallow" and said that "I always remember two groups of students. One is the really good students, not only intelligent, but with leadership qualities, courage. The other is the total opposite, unfortunately to which George belonged."
Tsurumi wrote earlier this year that three decades later "I still vividly remember him. In my class, he declared that 'people are poor because they are lazy.' He was opposed to labor unions, Social Security, environmental protection, Medicare and public schools. To him, the antitrust watch dog, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Securities Exchange Commission were unnecessary hindrances to 'free market competition.' To him, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was 'socialism.'"
President Bush apparently is proud that he doesn't read newspapers. Nearly every president since Roosevelt made it a point to plow through at least four or five newspapers a day. President Dwight D. Eisenhower used to read nine papers daily.
Not President Bush. "What's in the newspapers worth worrying about?" he told Fox News Channel's Brit Hume last fall. "I just glance at the headlines just to get a flavor of what's moving. I rarely read the stories..." Like many Americans, the President is indifferent to the written word.
President Bush possesses a moral certitude that doesn't leave room for a careful consideration of facts or the possibility of changing course when the facts and other circumstance clearly demand it.
This is not the mark of an educated man.
In the Sept. 26 edition of the Boston Sunday Globe, journalist Christopher Lydon compared Sen. Kerry to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who before he became a Supreme Court justice was a thrice-wounded young soldier in the Union army during the Civil War. In a letter home to his father, the 21-year-old Holmes wrote about how he lost faith in war as an instrument for ending slavery.
"If civilization and progress are the better things, why, they will conquer in the long run, we may be sure, and will stand a better chance in their proper province in peace - than in war, the brother of slavery ... it's slavery's parent, child and sustainer at once."
This, wrote Lydon, "was the blood-begotten insight that shaped the life work of Holmes, William James and John Dewey, among others, and produced an American system of ideas, Pragmatism, that prevailed from the Civil War to the Cold War. Experimentalism, tolerance, pluralism, skepticism and free speech were core values in the code. 'Certitude leads to violence' was Holmes' bumper sticker. As Louis Menand told the story in 'The Metaphysical Club,' Holmes 'had an intense dislike of people who presented themselves as instruments of some higher power,' Menand writes. Holmes put it: "I detest a man who knows that he knows.'"
Sen. Kerry, who was brave enough to volunteer for a war that most of his peers avoided and intelligent enough to recognize that the war that he fought in wasn't quite the war that he signed up for and was brave enough to say that before a Senate committee, possesses the kind of educated mind that recognizes mistakes and learns from them. A man who "knows that he knows," such as President Bush, doesn't learn, makes no effort to learn and blames others when things don't fit the neat moral box he constructed.
As President Bush and Sen. Kerry square off on Thursday night, think of this - and of which sort of president this country needs.
Randolph T. Holhut (B.A., University of Massachusetts, 1983; M.P.A, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government, 1997) has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.