Los Angeles Times
October 22, 2004
Is John Kerry too intelligent to be president of the United States?
It was what I felt instinctively the first and only time I met him, at a lunch at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 1998. He was subtle, full of cultural and historical references, elaborating each fine argument at length, with perception and nuance. I commented to one of his aides afterward that I regrettably thought his brains could turn out to be the biggest impediment to a man like him ever occupying the White House.
All these years later, with most polls still showing George W. Bush ahead of his opponent after three debates in which Kerry proved himself more articulate and thoughtful and flexible and able to understand an increasingly dangerous world, I am afraid I may have been right. Yet it still seems inconceivable to me that someone as incompetent, incoherent and obtuse as Bush could possibly command almost half the votes of his fellow countrymen.
Is it that Americans actually like Bush's know-nothing effect? Or is it that Kerry strikes Americans as too highbrow? As pretentious? Do they see his complexity as excessive effeminate suppleness?
This anti-intellectualism has, unfortunately, a long history in the United States.
I first encountered that widespread prejudice as a 10-year-old Latin American boy in New York in 1952. It was an election year, and I was enrolled in the Dalton School on 89th Street — a bastion of American progressives. I had no doubt that "my" candidate, Adlai Stevenson, one of the most lucid and cultured men in the nation, was going to defeat Dwight D. Eisenhower, a general who bragged that he preferred playing golf to reading a book. In a mock vote, the tally in my class was, as far as I recall, 27 to 1.
A few days later, the American people, in the real balloting, overwhelmingly chose "I like Ike" over "egghead" Adlai. When I asked my dad how people could possibly reject someone as smart and educated as Stevenson, he explained that this was a transitory aberration, the malevolent dregs of McCarthyism, which had convinced many Americans that, at a time of great national peril, being an intellectual was akin to being a traitor.
But it was not an aberration and certainly not transitory. Eleven years later, Richard Hofstadter published his "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," a Pulitzer Prize-winning book that explored the deep roots of this wariness toward anyone "who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows," as Eisenhower himself rather wittily phrased it.
Anti-intellectualism had its origins, according to Hoftstadter, in American traits that anteceded the nation's founding: the mistrust of secular modernization, the preference for practical and commercial solutions to problems and, above all, to the devastating influence of Protestant evangelism in everyday lives. Anybody who cares to read this masterful book today may be astonished to see how it anticipates and even predicts the rise of the neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalism in contemporary Washington.
Hofstadter seems to be writing in 2004 when he chillingly states: "The fundamentalist mind is essentially Manichean; it looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly it scorns compromises (who would compromise with Satan?) and can tolerate no ambiguities. It cannot find serious importance in what it believes to be trifling degrees of difference."
And this mind-set could well elucidate why so many Americans recognize that Kerry may have won the debates but is unable to persuade them with his fine distinctions to change their minds or vote for him.
It may turn out that enough undecided voters will set aside their misapprehensions and select Kerry as their next president. It may be that Iraq, the loss of jobs, the rise in healthcare costs and so much more will make them ignore the fact that Kerry is someone they would not want "to share a beer with."
More than a century and a half ago, in the very state of Massachusetts that Bush has maligned in every speech, there lived in the city of Boston, not far from where Kerry has his home, a man named Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was arguably the preeminent North American intellectual of the 19th century, and in "The Conduct of Life" he wrote these prescient words: "Our America has a bad name for superficialness. Great men, great nations, have not been boasters and buffoons, but perceivers of the terror of life, and have manned themselves to face it."
The terror of life.
One can only hope that his fellow Americans, so many years later, will not be afraid of choosing as their leader a man who believes that the best way to defeat the multiple terrors of today and tomorrow is with an intelligence of which no human should ever be ashamed.