The New York Times
August 19, 2004
Maybe it's just that I'm having too many long talks with my 16-month-old these days, but I find myself sensitive to the language of "daddies" and "dummies." This is the language of toddlerhood; it's not how we should be framing a national conversation about the president.
It cannot have escaped anyone's notice that much of the current Bush-bashing aims to infantilize him. The most devastating segment in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," for instance, features the president - just after he learned of the second attack on the World Trade Center - perched on a chair in a Florida classroom, looking glazed and confused as he listens to a reading of "The Pet Goat." Mr. Bush's aide might well have whispered the news to one of the assembled students to greater effect, and the implication is inescapable: for seven long minutes, the president was Not a Man.
A glance at the top 150 ads selected by MoveOn.org for its recent political advertising contest, "Bush in 30 Seconds," similarly reveals the extent to which childishness is woven into the current Bush-bashing. While children have long been used in political ads to represent the future, many of the MoveOn entries use them to satirize the actual candidate. Several of the proposed anti-Bush commercials use kids to condemn the president for unsophisticated thinking, for an infantile worldview, for the fact that his daddy purchased his every big break and for the fact that he is desperately beholden to the wealthy and powerful grown-ups surrounding him. The clear message is that Bush is more a child than an adult.
What's wrong with continuing efforts to characterize Mr. Bush as a not-particularly-smart third grader? For one thing, it plays to every stereotype of liberals as snotty know-it-alls who think everyone in a red state is anti-intellectual or simple-minded. It answers name-calling from the right with name-calling from the left.
These assertions also insult anyone who voted for Mr. Bush in 2000. Rather than offering an argument for Mr. Kerry, they merely disparage swing voters, who may be tempted to defect to the Democrats over the war or the economy, by sneering that they voted for a kid - and a dumb kid at that.
One of the most enduring memories from the Bush-Gore debates in 2000 was Al Gore, all sighs and eye-rolls, trapped in what must have felt like the middle-school playground fight from hell instead of a presidential debate. Everything about Mr. Gore's demeanor signaled that he felt he was giving a punk kid a much-needed scolding. Which missed the point: a lot of very smart people voted for Mr. Bush in 2000 because to them, he represented a return to honesty and morality. Dismissing him as a stupid child, and these voters as stupid-children-by-association, is no way to win them back.
Furthermore, the campaign to cast Mr. Bush as a bumbling child ignores the very grown-up machine that stands behind him. Infantilizing the president shifts the focus away from the Cheneys, Rumsfelds, Ashcrofts and Wolfowitzes. These are the men who promised us short, easy wars and painless little suspensions of the Geneva Conventions. These are the men of the secret energy-policy meetings. They aren't a bunch of rowdy juveniles. They represent one of the most secretive, powerful administrations in recent memory. Whether the president could outscore your kids on the SAT is a distraction from that fact.
Finally, there is a psychological consequence to labeling the president an incurious frat boy. With each attempt to cast Mr. Bush as a baby, we craft excuses for his childish behaviors. If Mr. Bush misled us into a war in Iraq, it's because children have trouble telling the truth. If Mr. Bush sees the world in too-stark terms, it's because nuanced reasoning isn't easy for children. With each comparison between the president and a youngster, we subtly lower national expectations and exonerate bad behavior.
This election is not a choice between adults and children, and it won't be won or lost with jokes about whether Laura ties the president's shoes each morning before she points him toward the Oval Office. Nothing is gained by offering Mr. Bush even a metaphorical second childhood. Much may be gained by offering our real children a safe and just first one.