Is Being Smart a Political Liability?

There was a remarkable exchange on the MSNBC show Hardball yesterday, between host Chris Matthews, and commentators Roger Simon and Chris Cillizza:

MATTHEWS: Yes, well, isn’t it funny, Roger–and I love the way you cover politics. You get the richness of it. You have fish fry dinners with Jesse Jackson in the middle of the night and write about it. Here we are with a president–who most people who are honest about it would say came to the office pretty much unprepared to deal with the third world.

He listened to a bunch of jughead neoconservatives who talked him into a war that doesn’t quite make sense now, and most people say he’s not a bad guy. He just was totally naive and unprepared for the ideologically and tribal mess we’re in over there now right now.

So now we go looking for the freshest faces we can find to replace him. Are we crazy? Why don’t we look for the long-headed guys, the Jim Bakers and the Hamiltons to do it?

SIMON: Well, for one reason, Americans distrust people who are too smart. Remember, Adlai Stephenson ran into this problem. If you seem too intelligent–Dukakis had this problem.

MATTHEWS: Are you serious?

SIMON: Some people thought Kerry was too ethereal.

MATTHEWS: Bill Clinton has an I.Q. of 170 or something. What are you talking about?

SIMON: We want it both ways. Clinton was smart enough to hide his intelligence. He ran as a good old boy, the boy from Hope. He ran as a nice guy that you want to live next to.

MATTHEWS: So we don’t want the guy like Al Gore who looks like he actually reads “Foreign Policy” magazine?

SIMON: Well, that was a problem, remember, when Bush went head-to-head with Gore.


SIMON: Yes, I mean, the American people did, in fact, choose Gore by the popular vote. We learned how important that was.

MATTHEWS: Are we going to keep, Chris, looking for the most popular kid in class or the smartest kid in class?

CILLIZZA: Well, I think it’s a stylistic thing more than it is sort of what your I.Q. is. I mean, I think the reality was that Al Gore was perceived by many people as pedantic, that he was telling you why you should vote for him, and the main reason was he knew more than you. You know, I think people–it’s not so much you don’t want…

MATTHEWS: That wasn’t Bush’s strategy.

CILLIZZA: I don’t think people don’t want to elect smart people. I think they don’t want is to have someone else’s intelligence thrust into their face and said you should vote for me because of that.

That bold-faced remark was said with a laugh.

I think Simon has it exactly right. Politically, it’s fine to be smart. Just don’t look smart.

The even more annoying fact about American politics is that studipity and ignorance are not disqualifications. That Bush was thoroughly unprepared to be President was obvious in 2000. That didn’t stop the press from portraying him as a down-to-Earth everyman, in contrast to Gore’s pompous windbaggery.


  1. #1 David D.G.
    December 14, 2006

    So good political advice would be this: If you’re not too bright, act like you know as much as you need to know and condemn the other guy for his nerdy intelligence. If you are actually reasonably smart yourself, though, for God’s sake don’t ACT as if you’re smart; act like an Everyman, a Joe Average.

    In other words, the patterns established in elementary school for social popularity among one’s peers hold true for political popularity generally among the entire nation of voting adults. What a depressing revelation.

    And the voting patterns I recall seeing in my lifetime bear this out pretty well, in addition to what is said in that exchange about Clinton. Carter has a degree in nuclear engineering; but he managed to get elected by ignoring that smartness card and playing on a neighborly down-home good-old-boy image, like somebody straight out of Mayberry. Reagan got elected in spite of being an idiot (he once even claimed in an interview that pollution was primarily caused by trees!) just because he projected a great sense of confidence in his own ability; of course, people tended to forget that he was an ACTOR!

    It says quite a lot about the nature of American society that smart people have to act dumb in order to avoid being marginalized by everyone else — and what it says isn’t good. It’s a sickness, really, a cultural neurosis.

    ~David D.G.

  2. #2 Pseudonym
    December 14, 2006

    Interestingly, I’m reading “The Demon-Haunted World” at the moment. The story of Frederick Douglass is very telling. He realised at a young age that slave masters keep their control partly by controlling the ability of their slaves to read, and hence learn, and hence critically think.

    People who revel in ignorance are enslaving themselves.

  3. #3 bigTom
    December 14, 2006

    Well I have to disagree with David about Reagan. There are different sorts of intelligence. Reagan was master of emotional intelligence, he could come across to nearly anyone as wonderfully sincere. Of course he never would have had a chance competing for the nobel prize in physics.
    But alas, the general point seems to be true. It is very common to be distrustful of people who are smarter than ourselves. We presume that they will be able to bamboozle us, I presume. Of course the president may not have to be particularly smart -so long as he chooses a good set of advisors. So an accomplished actor, who knows how to choose a good cabinet could be a succesful combination.
    Perhaps the experience with GWB will change this dynamic -at least for a while. We’ve had a demonstration of the damage a low-browed leader can wreak.

  4. #4 Joshua
    December 14, 2006

    That didn’t stop the press from portraying him as a down-to-Earth everyman, in contrast to Gore’s pompous windbaggery.

    There’s the rub. Nothing much stops the press from concocting whatever half-baked narrative they like. Certainly not reality, ethics, or good policy.

  5. #5 JoeC
    December 15, 2006

    I remember being appalled during the last presidential campaign that many Bush supporters, when asked about his obvious difficulty with concepts beyond 2 + 2, actually answered that they found it endearing because they couldn’t spell well or pronounce “nuclear” correctly either. He’s “one of us”, they said.

    And in their own version of cluelessness, the Democrats obligingly put up two of the most perfect straight-men for this appeal to ignorance: Kerry, the elite eastern liberal with the “let them eat cake” wife, and Gore, the windy wonk who likes to lecture.

    But getting back to the question, I think it’s less that people don’t trust intelligence, although that’s certainly the case with some, but that nobody likes being talked down to or to feel that they are regarded with scorn or as inferior. In many ways, it’s just good manners. And it doesn’t hurt to have an engaging personality no matter who you are. The ability to persuade and win people over is a job requirement of the office. Talking down to them doesn’t get it done.

  6. #6 Jonathan Lubin
    December 15, 2006

    I think that part of bing smart is to know the other person’s level and be able to spek their language. I’m not being “smart” by using words the person in front of me doesn’t know.

  7. #7 drcharles
    December 15, 2006

    it’s a very good exchange, and quite true. i think obama might fit into the clinton mold – he’s a brilliant mind, at least that’s what i got from reading his first book, but he’ll wrap himself in religion and hipness and understatement if he’s politically savvy.

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