It was here in the parking lot of Cramer's Home Center, less than seven miles from a NASCAR track, in a pivotal battleground state, on the back of a battered work van, that we saw the first one.
"Somewhere in Texas," the bumper sticker said, "A Village Is Missing Its Idiot." The next showed up at the Home Depot on the back of an equally battered pickup driven by a tough-looking kid dressed for construction work. It said: "Bush," and then, "Like a Rock Only Dumber."
These are signs of the fierce conviction of some voters -- and the secret fear of a quieter and perhaps larger group -- that George W. Bush is not smart enough to continue as president. Indeed, if an unscientific survey of bumper stickers, graffiti and letters to the editor in this conservative mountain region is an indicator, doubts are spreading. Yet the subject is seldom taken head-on by the mainstream newspapers and network news. The discourse about presidential intelligence appears mainly on the Internet, in the partisan press, among television comics and at the level of backyard jokes and arguments.
After four decades of newspapering, including covering the "dumb" Ronald Reagan and the "smart" Jimmy Carter, I am not unsympathetic to the problems of trying to inform the public on this touchiest of competency issues. Big news organizations are captives of our own rules of fairness. Voters are doubly disadvantaged, by both a paucity of information in campaign coverage and by the elusive nature of the evidence about the kinds of intelligence that matter in our leaders.
My generation of White House correspondents was accused of covering up Ronald Reagan's supposed stupidity and his reliance on fictional "facts" derived from Errol Flynn movies and the John Birch Society. In 1981 Clark Clifford, the Democratic "wise man," entertained Georgetown dinner parties with the killer line that Reagan was "an amiable dunce." Twenty years later we know that Clark Clifford was charged in a banking scandal and the dunce ended the Cold War.
What is presidential intelligence and how much does it really matter?
We can all recite the lists of ostentatiously brilliant presidents who faltered (Wilson, Hoover, etc.) and apparent plodders who triumphed (Truman). When I was covering the Reagan White House in 1981, all his top aides were wholesaling Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous comment about Franklin Roosevelt's possessing "a second-rate intellect, but a first-rate temperament." In the end, Reagan confounded scholars, journalists and voters alike. In an obituary essay, his biographer Edmund Morris referred first to Reagan's "intelligence" and later to his "ignorance."
To be fair, innate intelligence has to do with capability, and ignorance to do with variables such as educational opportunity and personal diligence. But the conundrum remains. Is intellect important in presidents? If Americans can't solve the question definitively in the matter of John F. Kerry and George W. Bush, we damn sure ought to make an educated guess.
One highly imperfect but salient way to do so is at the level of campaign tactics. Does anyone in America doubt that Kerry has a higher IQ than Bush? I'm sure the candidates' SATs and college transcripts would put Kerry far ahead. Yet, at this point in the campaign, Bush deserves an A or a high B -- instead of a gentleman's C -- when it comes to neutralizing Kerry's knowledge advantage.
He, or more likely Karl Rove, has triggered Kerry's taste for complicated ideas and explanations. Kerry is telling us that we live in a complex world. Americans know that, but as an electorate, they are not drawn to complexity. Sen. Kerry, read my lips. Your explanations about your conflicting votes on the Iraq war and how you would have conducted it are wondrous as rhetorical architecture. They are also signs that Bush has trapped you into having the wrong conversation with the voters. He trumped your weeks of intricate explanation by going on "Larry King Live" and saying over and over that a president must be resolute and that he will be. More recently, the White House has displayed a devious brilliance in making the Atwateresque Swift boat commercials the focus of campaign news.
Whatever his IQ, George W. Bush as a candidate is a one-trick pony, and so far Kerry is letting him get by with his single trick: endless repetitions of "I make a decision; I stick to it; that's what presidents do." The Kerry campaign has yet to force Bush outside this comfort zone.
John Kerry is a flip-flopper and a phony: That's the spine of the White House message, carried at the moment mainly in the purportedly independent commercials by Vietnam veterans questioning Kerry's battlefield performance. There's a reason these ads are paid for by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a front financed by Karl Rove's wealthy Texas allies, rather than by the Bush campaign itself. Bush doesn't want to identify with these worms, but he wants them to keep eating away at the apple of Kerry's stronger reputation as a warrior. And a contrived debate over Kerry's well-documented war record diverts voters' attention from a truly important national security question related to the intellectual capability of the incumbent: Was George W. dumb enough to be talked into adopting a flawed strategy for a phony war by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney?
Bush's former counselor Karen Hughes, in her awkwardly named book "Ten Minutes From Normal," assures us that what "Bush does best of all" is "ask questions that bore to the heart of the matter." She says that during the 2000 campaign she and a "brilliant" issues staff "never once succeeded" in anticipating all of Bush's penetrating questions. "He has a laser-like ability," Hughes writes, "to reduce an issue to its core."
In regard to Iraq and the war on terror, though, there's little evidence in the public record of such Bush interventions. We have been told instead that George Tenet, then director of central intelligence, successfully misled Bush by assuring him that the evidence on Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction was "a slam-dunk."
The millions of us who did not witness this and other potentially laser-like interactions must rely on speculation as to how Bush's mind works. The most informative writing I've seen on that score was an essay published over a year ago in the Atlantic by Richard Brookhiser, a historian and conservative columnist sympathetic to Bush. "Bush has intelligence, energy and humility," he writes, "but does he have imagination?" Brookhiser worries that Bush's limited information "habitat" could cut him off from the ideas necessary to feed presidential creativity in activities such as running a major war. Brookhiser goes on to speak of Bush's reliance on "instinct" and the fact that Bush's "faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity."
The comments sent my mind reeling back to the Reagan campaigns and what the cartoonist Garry Trudeau called the search for Reagan's brain. Trudeau's meaning, of course, was that Reagan didn't have one, but these days the phrase is to me more evocative of the journalistic gropings of the press corps to explain what, if anything, was going on inside that big, smiling, glossy-haired head.
In some thoughts I wrote down in 1982 after two years of close observation of Reagan on the campaign trail and in the White House, I characterized him as a "political primitive" who valued "beliefs over knowledge" based on verifiable facts. I also noted that Reagan had a "high tolerance for ambiguity" as to the outcome of policies that proceeded from such rough-hewn thought.
That strikes me as a different -- less troubling -- trait than what Brookhiser sees as Bush's refusal to recognize the mere existence of ambiguity. In general I've come to feel that what we have in Bush is a shadowy version of Reagan's strengths and an exaggerated version of his intellectual weaknesses.
At the height of my journalistic desire to understand Reagan's brain, I went to see David Gergen, then a presidential assistant. I told Gergen I wanted to write a piece for the sophisticated reader about exactly how Reagan's mind worked. With a twinkle in his eye, Gergen said that it would be a long, long time before we could have that conversation.
It hardly seems worth the trouble now, with Reagan in the pantheon.
But with some 140,000 troops in Iraq, the richest 1 percent of Americans about to get a five-figure tax windfall and millions of urbanites worrying about suitcase nukes, it's surely worth asking how George W. Bush's mind really works.
The writer is former executive editor of the New York Times.