Reputation as lightweight is Bush's burden to bear

But most candidates face similar ridicule

June 10, 2000|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Texas Gov. George W. Bush has made a highly public display of his Mount Rushmore-like foreign policy team. He has delivered speeches in recent weeks on such issues as Social Security, education, the environment, anti-ballistic missile defense. The presumed GOP presidential nominee has been reading up on the Balkans and Russia.

And yet, even with such a substance-heavy campaign, the doubts, the questions, the jokes about Bush's intellectual heft have not let up.

The "empty suit" charge has become Bush's campaign cross to bear - much as stiffness is for his Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, slickness was for President Clinton, the "wimp thing" was for former President George Bush and a similar lack of braininess was for former Vice President Dan Quayle.

"This is what happens in campaigns," Bush said in an interview when asked about the persistent questioning of his intelligence. "Ronald Reagan lacked gravitas. [His father] George Bush wasn't courageous enough, or whatever - the wimp. There was just all of these tags put on. And that's the Washington, D.C., political game. It does not affect elections."

He may be right. Polls suggest that although Bush's alleged lack of smarts is grist for comedians - Robin Williams: "I hate to see him in a debate keep asking if he could use his lifeline. No, you can't call your dad" - the concept isn't necessarily being bought by voters.

In a recent Gallup Poll, Americans who were asked to name the first thing that came to mind when thinking about Bush mostly said he was the son of a former president. Only 2 percent said he was not knowledgeable; another 2 percent said he was inexperienced.

"I don't think that people see in the governor of Texas a candidate who is unqualified to be president," says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. "Not for the first time, there is a disconnect between what the media and chattering class see as a potential weakness and what the people see."

Kohut says Bush has gone a long way toward countering the lightweight rap by taking the offensive on such complex issues as national security and arms control.

But, the pollster says, any gaffe could be costly for the Republican as the election nears and voters focus more on the candidates, especially as they stand side by side - and head to head - in the expected debates this fall.

It is the governor's good-old-boy, at times cocky demeanor, struggle with syntax, occasional malapropism and hands-off leadership style that have contributed to whatever Bush Lite image has taken hold.

But his C grades at Yale were no worse than Al Gore's at Harvard, and his SAT verbal score (566) was higher than that of the supposed brain of the presidential primary season, former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley (485).

Although those around Bush vary in their assessment of his mental acuity - everything from "one of the smartest guys I know" to "very simplistic" - most say he is sharp enough to be president. If, for the moment, he seems to fall short of his father in terms of intellectual curiosity and depth, they say he has keen instincts about politics and people that have served him well in his term and a half as governor of Texas.

"George W. is a quick and clever, facile guy," says Bill Minutaglio, author of "First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty."

"He's good at delegating and knows his limitations. But he's not an extraordinary, arching intellect, not a guy with a wholesale command of deep intellectual endeavors," Minutaglio says.

"Some people are looking for a profundity from George W. and feel they're not getting it. I don't know that they'll ever get it from him. But I don't know if it matters."

University of Texas government professor Bruce Buchanan says similarly that Bush's "natural people smarts" have helped him succeed in government - much as former President Ronald Reagan did - and may be as important, if not more so, than candlepower.

Political biographer Richard Reeves (who notes that former President John F. Kennedy's Harvard transcript looked a lot like Bush's file at Yale) believes that there is "almost no correlation" between high measurable intelligence and effective leadership. "Reagan, last on my presidential IQ list, changed the world," Reeves recently wrote for George magazine. "Clinton, No. 1 [in IQ], will be remembered, at best, for modernizing his party or, at worst, for embarrassing the nation in the little alcove behind the Oval Office."

Bush is a master delegator. He prefers short executive summaries on issues rather than long policy papers, or better yet, oral briefings. As Texas governor, he set broad goals and left the details of getting there to others.

"To use a military analogy, he would say, `This is the mountain we're going to go up,' but he wasn't telling us which route to take up the mountain," says a Republican ally in the Texas Legislature, Sen. David Sibley.

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