Here is why George W. Bush will be the next president of the United States: An average of nearly 29 million people tune in three nights a week to the quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," a program rooted in the brilliant premise that stupidity and ignorance need be no impediment in a contest of the intellect.
On-air competitors in "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" make their brow-furrowed way up from hundred-dollar queries to the million-dollar finale. The questions are presented with multiple-choice answers, giving even the most thoroughly stumped contestant a one-in-four chance of guessing right. The contestants may avail themselves, once, of each of the following "Lifelines" to outside help: "Fifty-Fifty," in which the computer eliminates two of the wrong answers from the four choices; "Ask the Audience," in which the studio audience is electronically polled as to the correct answer; and "Phone a Friend," in which a pal may be telephoned for advice.
The questions are not terribly taxing, but apparently they are taxing enough. Recently, a would-be millionaire queried on what Little Jack Horner had pulled out of his pie confidently went with "blackbird." On another episode, a contestant asked to complete the phrase "Duck, duck, blank," and given the choices of duck, mouse, goose and rabbit, was obliged to poll the audience.
Here is also why George W. Bush is going to be the next president of the United States: The latest national survey (since 1966, the 34th) of college freshmen, announced Monday by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, has produced some interesting records.
A record-high 39.9 percent of freshmen say they have been in their last year of high school frequently "bored in class." A record-low 31.5 percent of freshman say they spent six or more hours a week studying or doing homework in the last year. A record 40 percent say they studied fewer than three hours a week, and a record 17.1 percent studied one hour or less a week.
The percentage of students taking high school remedial courses in mathematics and foreign languages reached all-time highs, while the percentage of those taking remedial courses in sciences was at a 20-year high; in English, reading and social studies, it was at a nine-year high. Remember: These are the students who made it to college. Meanwhile, a record 34.1 percent of 1999 respondents say they finished high school in 1999 with an "A" average, compared with 12.5 percent in 1969.
An all-time high of 62.6 percent of freshmen occasionally or frequently "came late to class," and 36.2 percent reported having "overslept and missed class or an appointment," another record. Only 18 percent had checked out a book or journal from the school library in the past year; 14.8 percent had discussed politics. And one last statistic: 30.2 of the freshman reported feeling overwhelmed by all that was expected of them.
We used to want presidents who at least seemed better than us. Bill Clinton proved this is no longer so. Now, it seems, we prefer feeling superior to our leader--better for the self-esteem. We have decided that even the mediocre deserve representation--in a quiz show, in a university, in a president.
Clinton is much smarter than the average voter, but he is in every other way a perfectly cheesy, low, commercial, mendacious, vulgar Everyman for the nation of Supersize It and Just Do It and It Depends on What the Meaning of Is Is. We only became angry at Clinton--and then, not so much--when his behavior was so extraordinarily cheesy, low and mendacious that we could no longer see it as belonging in the same universe as our own.
Now, we would like a bit of class--but just a bit, not so much that it makes us feel inferior, as, in different ways, John McCain and Bill Bradley and Al Gore do. George W. Bush is nicely placed. He is, in moral and aesthetic terms, vastly superior to Clinton. But that is not saying he is any better than most of the rest of us. And yes, he went to Yale--but he only got in on his ancestral connections and he took a gentleman's "C." Why, any of us could have done that!
And if, one happy day, the new President Bush makes the cut to appear on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," and if on that occasion he is faced with that poser about Duck, duck, blank--we like to think, each and every voter, that he might exercise Phone a Friend, and dial us for the necessary goose.
Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.