In a variety of public events during his two terms as president, George W. Bush seemed to enjoy repeating a joke about his unimposing intellect. "I remind people that, like, when I'm with [Condoleezza Rice], 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 adviser,'" he'd say.
The line always worked -- Republican audiences invariably laughed and applauded -- though the rhetoric struck me as a mistake. As we've discussed before, 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.
But Bush's rhetoric was repeated for a reason. The Republican president recognized the value of anti-intellectualism in some conservative circles, and he exploited it to make himself look better in partisan settings.
We tend to expect a different tone from Jeb Bush, but Gawker flagged some comments the former governor made in New Hampshire late last week that struck a familiar tone.
"You don't have to be the world's policeman, but we have to be the world's leader -- and there's a huge difference. This guy, this president and Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry, when someone disagrees with their nuanced approach -- where it's all kind of so sophisticated it makes no sense, you know what I'm saying? Big-syllable words and lots of fancy conferences and meetings -- but we're not leading, that creates chaos, it creates a more dangerous world."
There's plenty to chew on here. For example, if Bush can explain the "huge difference" between leading the world and being the world's policeman, I'd love to hear him explore this in detail. For that matter, listening to any Bush lament international "chaos" in the wake of the Bush/Cheney era is pretty hard to swallow.
And yes, U.S. officials attend plenty of "fancy conferences and meetings," but while Jeb sees this as proof that "we're not leading," sometimes, at "fancy conferences and meetings," the United States is both leading and advancing our interests.
Even putting this aside, though, listening to Bush complain about "big-syllable words" is a bit much.
The anti-intellectualism itself rankles, but just as important is the fact that Jeb Bush had cultivated a very different kind of public persona. The Florida Republican has reveled, for example, in reporters calling him a policy "wonk." He's described himself as a "total nerd" who -- get this -- reads books.
It's almost as if there's an implicit argument Bush wants voters to understand: "Among my siblings, I'm the smart one." This posturing may not be rooted in fact, but it's helped create what Gail Collins described as Jeb's "aura of competence."
It's a reputation the former governor seems eager to shed.
Put it this way: nerdy, book-loving wonks don't complain about presidents who use "big-syllable words." They don't clumsily argue, "This guy, this president and Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry, when someone disagrees with their nuanced approach -- where it's all kind of so sophisticated it makes no sense, you know what I'm saying?"
Actually, no, I don't know what Bush is saying. Does he?