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Fade in: George W. Bush stepping up to a podium to deliver a speech on the economy. He’s doing his best statesman vamp. The smile is under control. His body movements are tight, his eye motion restrained. “Recently,” he begins, “I have been talking about our obligations to the Greatest Generation. It is a fitting name. They were born in the Depression, won World War II.”

Hold on, fella (as Bush might say). Was Hitler defeated by an army of children? The Depression started in 1929. The United States entered the war 12 years later. Those who vanquished the Axis powers were born during the happy days of the Roaring ’20s.

OK, it’s a small point, though had Al Gore made this mistake, we’d probably see him ridiculed for botching a simple fact. But, still, this misstatement was a small representation of a campaign season overflowing with fuzzy math and fuzzy rhetoric.

It’s not just syntax, pronunciations and résumés that have been mangled this year. At the St. Louis debate, Bush asked a teacher if he was a “paper-filler-outer,” and Gore bragged that “for 24 years I have never been afraid to take on the big drug companies.” (Gore must have forgotten his recent alliance with U.S. pharmaceutical companies that tried to bully South Africa when it passed laws to provide cheap anti-AIDS medication to millions of its citizens infected with the HIV virus.)

Fans of cogent thinking have not had much to cheer this election. Al Gore argues that the country should elect him to help the 40-odd million Americans who go without insurance — without acknowledging that his administration botched its health care initiative and then did little to address the problem of uninsured adults. But Bush and Gore are not equal in their disregard for rational rhetoric.

Master of muddle

In the last debate, Gore pressed Bush on legislation establishing a patient bill of rights that would allow victims of health care neglect to sue HMOs. Bush declined to state his position on the measure, dismissing talk of this particular bill by saying, “Now it’s kind of Washington, D.C.; focus in this committee; it has this sponsor.” In other words, facts are stupid things, as Ronald Reagan once malapropped.

Bush also proclaimed, “I have a strategy for the Middle East.” But what he described as his strategy — a collection of bromides, such as being “credible and strong,” reaching out to “modern Arab nations,” and practicing patience — was only a strategy in the loosest sense of the word. It was an insult to all serious-minded strategists — and to the questioner who deserved an answer, not just a reply.

To evaluate the thought processes — or lack thereof — of a man who may well become the next president, it is illustrative to examine how he deals with the tough question of the death penalty. At the St. Louis debate, Leo Anderson, one of the undecided voters, asked Bush about his apparently gleeful expression of support for capital punishment in a previous debate. The Texas governor fell back on the old canard that executions deter crime. Days later, when grilled by David Letterman on the subject, he conceded, “It’s a hard statistic to prove.”

Does this mean Bush is presiding over killings on the basis of iffy stats? And why is Texas, the state with the most executions, not the state with the least murders? In response to Anderson, Bush further justified his record-setting approval of executions by noting he was upholding “the laws of my state.” In typical fashion, he explained, “You can’t let the public persuasion sway you because the job is to enforce the law.” Sounds as if he is nobly standing for principle in the face of popular opposition.

Consistently inconsistent

Of course, there is much (too much) public support for executing convicts. Bush is going with the flow. “It’s the law” is hardly a rigorous defense of a controversial practice. It’s reasoning by autopilot. After all, Bush opposes abortion rights, though Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land. He also declared on the subject of capital punishment: “Some of the hardest moments since I’ve been governor of the State of Texas is” — note the verb tense — “to deal with those cases.” To be fair, this is not sloppy thinking, merely less-than-honest melodrama, for his office records show he often devoted as little as 15 minutes to reviewing these cases prior to granting the go-ahead to an execution. It’s possible these 900 seconds were excruciating moments.

It’s not that Bush was caught in the headlights during the debate. In a recent interview with Charisma, a magazine for evangelical Christians, Bush was asked, “Many Christians believe the death penalty is supported by Scripture, while others believe it isn’t. How have you applied your faith to this issue?” That’s a good, meaty question that aims to get to the heart of the matter.

Here’s the answer the born-again Bush served his comrades in Christ: “It’s a very difficult issue for a lot of people. And it’s not easy being the governor in a death penalty state. But nevertheless my job is to uphold the laws of our land. When I swore on the Bible at my inauguration as governor of Texas, I swore to uphold the laws. I also believe it is important to focus on the innocent victim when it comes to crime. If the death penalty is administered surely, swiftly, and justly, it will save lives because people will know that there is going to be a consequence to crime.”

What about answering the query? How does he reconcile his faith — Jesus is his favorite political philosopher, and the Methodist Church to which he belongs opposes the death penalty, citing the teachings of Jesus — with state-sponsored killing?

Bush will not or cannot engage in such a sophisticated discussion. That’s no surprise; he once explained his stand against abortion by saying, “Don’t like it. I have an opinion.” In the Charisma interview, he reaffirmed his anti-abortion position and noted, “this country needs to have a renewed understanding of the preciousness of life.” How does that square with his capital punishment stand? Charisma didn’t ask. But during this session, Bush quipped, “What’s needed in a president is a consistent message.”

Smart failures

It’s fun to chuckle at Bush for his liberal approach to the English language. Attempting — once again — to explain his tax plan at the St. Louis debate, Bush told Lisa Key, a middle-class 34-year-old, “You’ll be in a world in which fits into my philosophy.” That’s darn amusing. But his aversion to deep thinking is alarming. Yet it may not prevent his ascension to the White House.

Not that intelligence — or intellectual curiosity — guarantees political victory or accomplishment within office. The last guy to win residency at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was super-smart, and he has not been a stunning success. Perhaps as a reaction to the Bill Clinton years, millions of potential voters are enchanted by Bush’s anti-intellectualism. (Clinton’s legacy may well be a Republican-controlled Congress and a Bush back in the White House.)

At one Bush rally, a senior-citizen W. enthusiast — no names, please, she said — told me that it was obvious that Bush could not match Gore in terms of gray matter. But that did not faze her. “Smart people don’t have all the answers,” she said. “And if you’re not so smart, maybe you won’t tell the rest of us what to do.”

Perhaps after the past seven years, many Americans actually are eager to have a president they do not have to take seriously.

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation. His first novel, Deep Background, a political thriller, was published recently by St. Martin's Press. E-mail [email protected]
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