As president, George W. Bush had an annoying habit of telling one specific joke over and over again: “I remind people that, like, when I’m with Condi, I say, ‘She’s the Ph.D. and I’m the C student and just look at who’s the president and who’s the advisor.’”
Republican audiences invariably laughed whenever Bush told the joke, but the humor always struck me as misplaced. It’s not exactly a positive message to young people: study, get good grades, and work hard in school, and someday you too can take orders from a guy who struggled to graduate.
In 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) made similar jokes, poking fun at his poor grades and boasting about what a lousy student he was in school. “I graduated in the top 10 of my graduating class – of 13,” Perry bragged, invariably prompting laughter and applause from GOP audiences.
This year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) isn’t yet offering similar punch-lines, but he is keeping the anti-intellectual strain alive.
Walker responded by ticking through his recent itinerary of face time with foreign policy luminaries: a breakfast with Henry Kissinger, a huddle with George P. Shultz and tutorials at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution.But then Walker suggested that didn’t much matter. “I think foreign policy is something that’s not just about having a PhD or talking to PhD’s,” he said. “It’s about leadership.”
I don’t much care that Walker dropped out of college and never got a degree. I do care, however, about him dismissing those with doctorates, as if vague platitudes about “leadership” are a meaningful substitute for actual expertise.
America has, of course, had plenty of great presidents who lacked post-graduate degrees, but note Walker’s specific claim: a president even “talking to” those with a PhD, he said, isn’t especially important.
“It’s about leadership”? That’s fine, I suppose, but leadership based on what? If an inexperienced leader with limited policy expertise is faced with an international crisis, maybe he or she would benefit from a discussion or two with folks who’ve studied foreign policy for much of their adult lives?
The substitute would be an overconfident president who believes his “gut” is determinative. I think we know how well this turned out the last time the country tried this route.
Way back in 2008, Paul Krugman complained that “know-nothingism” has become too common in Republican circles: “[T]he insistence that there are simple, brute-force, instant-gratification answers to every problem, and that there’s something effeminate and weak about anyone who suggests otherwise – has become the core of Republican policy and political strategy. The party’s de facto slogan has become: ‘Real men don’t think things through.’”
In this sense, seeing Walker boast that he doesn’t even need to talk to those with post-graduate degrees seems oddly familiar.