February 14th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Australia-US free trade agreement: free trade or fair trade?

EDITORIAL: Bush and Iraq: the essential issues

ELECTION: How Labor outgunned the Coalition in Queensland

AGRICULTURE: Political will needed to solve dairy industry crisis

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Latham catches government on wrong foot

OPINION: Regionalism the solution to excessive centralism

STRAWS IN THE WIND : Deschooling or reschooling? / Oxbridge / Pluralism

Death ethics (letter)

Front and centre (letter)

CANADA: Exposing the myths behind 'free market' agriculture policy

ISLAM: Musharraf's ambitious quest to lead the Islamic world

Bird flu cover-up shows that change in China comes slowly

COMMENT: Is President Bush really "dumb"?

BOOKS: Divorce Law and the Future of Marriage, by Barry Maley


MUSIC: Reflections for Peace, Joy and Serenity

Books promotion page

Is President Bush really "dumb"?

by Michael Scammell

News Weekly, February 14, 2004
You can tell that it's a presidential election year in the US, when Australian media commentators start labelling American presidents as "stupid".

A number of columnists have taken it upon themselves lately to question the IQ of America's political elites - one commentator going so far as to describe George W. Bush variously as "dumb" and a "dill". With a presidential campaign due no doubt we can expect more of the same.

There is an inherent lack of imagination within the Australian media when commentating on America's political leaders. Former president Ronald Reagan was equally depicted as "dumb" (the fact he now suffers from Alzheimer's, a disease affecting the mind, just makes the whole thing more delicious) and yet Reagan was one of America's most significant leaders, if for nothing else his role in ending the Cold War. He must have been doing something right.

Usual treatment

Of course, George W gets quite a lot of this, no doubt a result of his regular mangling of the English language and an unfortunate vacancy to his stare.

It probably doesn't help either that his opponent at the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore, was a known left-liberal ideologue (ironically, a trait much criticised by the media at the time and suggested as the reason he lost). And his presidential predecessor, Bill Clinton, a Rhodes scholar, in contrast all that homespun Texan charm, seems slightly quaint and decidedly non-intellectual in comparison.

The recent descriptions by former US Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill of a President with little knowledge of economics and generally disengaged from the decision making processes of the White House, readily reinforces media stereotypes of "Dumb America". That US documentary maker Michael Moore titled one of his books about the American political process, Stupid White Men is all grist to that mill.

But are these American presidents - and George W in particular - really so dumb? Often what is attacked by the media and elites as being simplistic in fact reflects a strong political awareness of one's constituency. While one might cringe at the lack of subtlety in descriptions by Reagan of the Soviet Union as an "evil empire", or Bush's "axis of evil", the fact is they clarify the issues for the electorate and thus make political action that much easier.

If anything, Bush's forthright actions in Iraq last year reflect a significant understanding of dictators such as Saddam Hussein, who so often try to shore up their position by manipulating the complexities, intellectual protocols and labored negotiations involved in international politics - and much beloved by many media commentators - to their own ends.

The fact that Libya and North Korea are now reconsidering their positions on Weapons of Mass Destruction as a result of Iraq suggests that Bush may well be speaking a simple yet effective language that these dictators understand.

One fallacy in this whole stupidity thing is the argument that someone of supposed lesser intellectual abilities is more likely to be beholden to special interest groups and manipulated by others.


Yet, history would suggest quite the opposite with political leaders from Bill Clinton to our very own Paul Keating often criticised through their incumbencies for being beholden to any special interest groups willing to flatter their sense of worth.

But most simply, media claims of stupidity have more to do with a sneering kind of elitism and faux intellectualism typical of many commentators rather than being based in fact. One remembers the famous 60 Minutes interview with Pauline Hanson when she admitted to not knowing what "xenophobic" means.

While this was taken up with much glee by the commentariat at the time as proof of Hanson's unsuitability for politics, for many supporters this was in fact seen as proof of her common touch - a much more valuable trait in the political process.

No doubt in a presidential election year, some media commentators (their appetites whetted by their unfit-for-office critiques of Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger last year) will take great delight in labelling President Bush and other candidates "dumb". And yet the lack of intellectual rigour involved in such analysis suggests that some media commentators, looking for an easy angle to their coverage are perhaps not so bright themselves.

Michael Scammell is a former Media Officer for Southern Australia with the US Consulate in Melbourne
Email: michaelscammell@hotmail.com

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