This morning, Nicholas Kristof joins the chorus of Democrats warning against the disaster that awaits if their party nominates Howard Dean. Most of what he says is sensible, but his chief point appears to be that Dean is too smart:
“Mr. Dean is smart, but he knows it. America’s heartland oozes suspicion of Eastern elitists, and Mr. Dean’s cockiness would exacerbate that suspicion….Mr. Dean’s recent remarks about Southern men and Confederate flags showed both his awareness of this problem and his ineptitude in addressing it. He also described the episode as a ‘huge contretemps,’ and I seriously doubt that anybody who publicly uses the word ‘contretemps’ can ever be elected president.
“You get the feeling that if Mr. Dean and Mr. Bush were stuck together in a small Missouri town, Mr. Dean would lecture farmers about Thomas Paine’s writings, while Mr. Bush would have the cafe crowd in stitches by doing impersonations of Mr. Dean.”
A very funny image. But Kristof’s idea that Americans don’t like smart politicians is silly. Several of our early presidents had abilities approaching genius. Abraham Lincoln, in my opinion, was one of the most brilliant men ever to engage in public life. Ulysses Grant was one of the greatest military thinkers ever, and one of the best prose stylists of the 19th century. Woodrow Wilson, while a poor president, was a very smart man by all accounts. Herbert Hoover was a brilliant engineer. Dwight Eisenhower organized the Normandy invasion, the largest undertaking in human history. Ronald Reagan was smart enough to understand both the evil and the weakness of Communism decades before the average college professor.
But, while being smart is a good quality in a leader, it is not the only indispensable quality, and it is rarely decisive in distinguishing among presidential candidates. (In my opinion, the only serious presidential candidate of recent times who was literally too dumb for the job was Al Gore.) The president’s job is not to lecture; it is to lead. There are several requirements for leadership in a democracy; one of them is that the leader not have contempt for the people he seeks to govern.
Dean’s problem is not that he is too smart; his problem is that he projects a bitter contempt for those who don’t agree with him, and only slightly less contempt for those who do.
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