by Sean Monkhouse,
June 14, 2002
During a 1992 photo-op at a New Jersey elementary school, Dan Quayle urged a student to add an "e" to the word potato. Even though Quayle was reading from a misspelled flashcard and had been guilty of several more-serious blunders, it was enough to confirm the suspicions of many Americans that Quayle was indeed a bumbling idiot not fit to be in office.
That simple spelling mistake became the basis of a national pastime that endures to this day: making vicious fun of Dan Quayle. William Figueroa, the ill-advised student, summarized America's sentiment when he told reporters the incident "showed that the rumors about the Vice President are true - that he's an idiot." Even the former VP himself has acknowledged that the "potato factor" seemed to be his biggest hurdle during two unsuccessful presidential bids.
Oh what a difference a war can make.
Ten years later and President George W. Bush is busy making Dan Quayle look like a brain surgeon and "We the People" are letting him. During his short presidency, Bush has trounced Quayle's record of misspelling and misspeaking and he is positively off the charts when it comes to his lack of world knowledge and basic social skills.
Despite the daily reminders of this idiocy, the press and the people remain silent. When Bush fumbles the first line of an important speech, or forgets what he is talking about or to whom he is talking, half of us nod in approval while the other half quietly grimace in disgrace.
Granted, with all that's going on today, it might seem trivial or untimely to focus on the President's IQ. After all, we still have terrorists to kill. But if George W. Bush can leave America in the middle of a "war" for European photo-ops and a meaningless treaty, we can take a little time away from criticizing his policies and get down to the man himself.
What better time to demand a smart president than when America needs one the most? Besides, I've always been a big fan of getting to the source of a problem. It must be the Libertarian in me.
Before the war, back when you could criticize the President without being condemned as an enemy of the state, public questioning about his IQ usually resulted in one of two responses: supporters defending him by claiming that he really was smart, in his own special way; and everyone else excusing his lack of intelligence because he appeared to be surrounded by brainy subordinates. Now, thanks to the war on terror, people aren't being bothered by those pesky IQ questions anymore. Even when the evidence of Bush's fourth-grade intellect smacks us in the face, we ignore it.
Take Bush's recent trip to Europe, where he visited several world leaders, signed a nuclear treaty with Russia's President Putin, and had an audience with the Pope. The administration, its proponents, and the American media have hailed Bush's trip to Europe as a great achievement on every level.
As Bush's tour concluded, Colin Powell proclaimed that it had been "a most successful and historic trip." They must not have been paying attention. Bush's behavior in Europe, while historic, cannot possibly be considered a success.
While meeting and greeting our nation's most important allies and negotiating with our former nemesis, President Putin of Russia, President Bush's behavior ranged from the frat-boy humor that left many people awkwardly staring at the ground - like his thanking President Putin for mowing the lawn - to repeatedly forgetting what country he was in.
Some of his minor screw-ups included his declaration on day two of his trip that he intended to "securitize" Russia's dismantled nuclear weapons. Other blunders were a bit more profound as exemplified by a video clip widely played in Europe that shows the President of the United States spitting out his gum into his hand before signing the "historic" Treaty of Moscow. This must be the simple, down-home brand of skill and grace his supporters refer to.
Then there were the impromptu speaking engagements that surprised Bush and quickly put an uneasy hush on co-speakers and audiences alike. During one such moment in France, Bush childishly lambasted an American reporter for asking Jacques Chirac a question in, of all languages, French.
Bush angrily interrupted the reporter, suggesting that he was only speaking French to show off. When the reporter offered to continue, Bush defensively blurted "Que Bueno" and proceeded to claim that he was bilingual too.
Gerard Baker described the scene for the Financial Times, "Reporters shuffled their notebooks and looked at their feet, embarrassed by this spectacle of an American president jeering at a fellow American for speaking their host's language." No wonder Bush's handlers won't let him address the public without a well-written, well-rehearsed script. Que bueno indeed Mr. President.
I've heard most of the excuses for these and his other Euro-blunders -jet lag, old age, brutal schedule, and even the admission that more than once during his trip, the President was up past his bedtime. But perhaps his antics in Europe have more to do with the fact that he rarely ventures out of his own mental or physical back yard.
The man who clumsily speaks of bringing free trade to the world and the importance of a global coalition just does not seem to find other countries or cultures very interesting. Not as a flunking undergrad or flunking graduate student, not as the CIA Director's son or the President's son, not as a rich drunk or Governor of Texas. Not exactly the best characteristic for the leader of the free world. A world that is quickly getting smaller as it watches India and Pakistan rush closer to a nuclear war. Remember that it was only last year that Bush could not name the president of Pakistan.
Bush's show of stupidity in Europe, humiliating as it was, doesn't even come close to the depths of idiocy reported last week by the German paper Der Spiegel. According to the article, during a meeting with Fernando Cardoso, Bush asked the following question to the 71-year-old President of Brazil: "Do you have blacks too?"
Let that sink in for a second.
"Do you have blacks too?"
President Cardoso, a sociologist, author and speaker of four languages, had little time to display his shock and horror before National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, tried to come to the rescue by explaining to Bush that Brazil did indeed "have blacks" and in fact, was home to one of the largest black populations outside of Africa. Reports suggest that Rice was surprised and a bit panicked by the question. No doubt.
I can't think of single reason that would absolve Bush of his blatant stupidity in this instance. If he were joking, which he wasn't, it would have been horribly tasteless and inappropriate at the very least. If he seriously didn't know that Brazil "has blacks," but suddenly found himself interested in the subject, most would hope that some synapse in that little brain of his would have fired and he would have said to himself, "oh, this might not be the best time."
At the very least, he could have whispered the question to Rice and avoided the embarrassment and apprehensive grins that followed. Hell, he could have waited and looked it up online for himself. But no. Bush doesn't seem to care enough to go to that kind of trouble. Instead, he makes an ass out of himself and the country he leads.
Bush, with his non-existent education and his lack of desire to attain one, doesn't prep himself before meeting the leaders of the world or even express the faintest interest in other countries or their citizens. But right now, no one seems to mind. He can thank America's patriotic stupor for not calling him on such a moronic, telling, and unexplainable question as "Do you have blacks too?" I'd like to see a new headline on Newsweek's cover, "The President Didn't Know!"
And how could he not know? Brazil is by far the largest and most populous country in South America and ranks second in the western hemisphere only to the U.S., both in terms of land mass and population. Brazil has over 175 million people making it the fifth largest country in the world. Six percent of Brazilians are "black," and 38 percent are identified as "a white and black mix." So, by American standards, Condoleezza Rice was correct when she explained that Brazil was the nation with the largest "black" population outside of Africa. By the way, Rice is "black" and Africa is not a "nation."
Of course this incident is not receiving much media play in the States, but if it was, many people would undoubtedly respond with the "different not inferior" defense. Meanwhile, my 11-year-old son has known for years that people from African descent live all over the planet and lots of them live in Brazil (remember Pelé?). These Americans would also say that all this is ridiculous, that I am getting caught up in the kind of meaningless statistics that ignore Bush's larger foreign policy skills. They would say that such an incident was being taken out of context.
But oh, it is important and context is everything. But don't take my word for it, ask the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), an advisory panel made up of major U.S. investors, corporate executives and business lobbyists. When it comes to foreign policy, if Bush has a handler, it is the CFR.
In an open letter to Bush the Council strenuously reminded him "Brazil is too important to everything that is going to happen in South America for a policy of benign neglect." The letter is primarily focused on Brazil's pivotal role in the battle for the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Brazil's $580 billion dollar economy overshadows all others in South America. For the economists in the room, that means that Brazil could be the biggest consumer of American goods in the hemisphere. Its cooperation with the FTAA is so crucial that it will end up making or breaking the entire deal.
Brazil's decisions about America's War on Drugs and War on Terror will be equally as influential - and make no mistake, the leaders of Brazil are undecided. In short, Brazil is poised to be America's new best friend. Much of it depends on subtleties like personal diplomacy, the ancient art of instilling trust, and simple skills like tact.
On some level I can sympathize with Bush because I like to consider myself a moderately intelligent person, but I'm not so good with remembering detail and I am by no means a public speaker. But then again, I don't have to be - I am not the President of the United States.
I don't want or need to be smarter than the man who runs my country and my 11-year-old son should not be able to top his knowledge of world geography, English grammar, or basic etiquette. I happen to believe that America's President should be smarter than the average Joe and Jane Q. Publics. Hell, he should be one of the smartest. We Americans seem to have a choice, either we dummy it down quite a bit, or we start electing smarter Presidents.
Sean Monkhouse encourages your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
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