Some four decades ago, William F. Buckley Jr. said he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty. At the time that seemed shocking as well as mischievous. Weren't professors thoughtful, more or less by definition, and shouldn't certified thoughtful people, rather than citizens chosen at random, hold political power?
Buckley made his famous phone book declaration when he was the lonely voice of a small conservative faction. At that time most intellectuals thought Republicans could justify their existence only by imitating the Democrats. It was assumed that both parties would inevitably agree on all significant issues, shaped as they were by the same social forces.
That's how Harvard saw things, and Harvard was the great seedbed of American politicians and bureaucrats. But Buckley argued that professors as a class, in particular Harvard professors, are politically weak and irresolute. They prefer pondering to acting and would rather argue than govern. (This was before many American professors proved him right by surrendering to the hooligans of the New Left.)
His remark stuck with me as a quirky kind of wisdom, and it ran through my mind this week during the presidential election. There it joined J.K. Galbraith's observation, last March, that "There is not one member of the faculty of Harvard University who is pro-Bush," which was no doubt literally inexact but close to the truth.
On Tuesday the Americans, symbolically, chose the phone book over Harvard. Of course, as in the last presidential election, they were literally choosing between two well-born members of the ruling class -- two boarding school boys, two rich Yale men, two members of that most desirable secret society, Skull and Bones. But there was a clear choice in tone and style. They chose between sophistication and simplicity, between a cultivated mind and strong principles.
John Kerry, though he's done only a little teaching, talks like a self-conscious professor, the kind who makes impressive noises but leaves students a little baffled and changes his views whenever he senses a shift in intellectual fashion. George W. Bush, though he got through Yale and did a Harvard MBA, sounds as if he might never have visited either of those places. He exudes confidence to the point of cockiness, an attitude that doesn't always survive superior education.
In choosing Bush, the voters rejected not only Harvard's faculty but most professors at most universities and no doubt the majority of their best students. They also had the cheek to ignore absolutely the wisdom of journalists, as embodied in the big liberal dailies, above all The New York Times and The Washington Post (and even The Globe and Mail!). Not to mention the New Yorker, which chose a presidential candidate for the first time in its 79 years.
To re-elect Bush the voters also had to disregard a now cherished belief of most professors and most journalists: Bush can't talk and can't think. Here I'm firmly on the side of the voters. True, Bush sometimes stumbles when speaking off the cuff, but he's nimbler in that regard than the flannel-mouthed Dwight Eisenhower, who is now considered a first-class president and, like Bush, had two terms. A facility for words, while handy, has not been a necessity for leaders in recent generations.
The evidence for Bush's reputedly low intelligence has never been strong. Presidents first demonstrate their acuity in choosing a cabinet, and Bush's Cabinet and subcabinet appointments have been far superior to those of Bill Clinton, who was better informed but surrounded himself with mediocrities. As for IQ: On Oct. 24 The New York Times ran a rather unobtrusive story about the tests taken by Bush and Kerry when they entered the military three decades ago. Bush scored in the mid-120s. Kerry's I.Q. was lower, about 120. In other words, neither young man was a genius but both were bright.
The widespread and wrong-headed belief in Bush as a dimwit illustrates a contradiction in the thinking of those who consider themselves enlightened. Self-proclaimed relativists, they argue piously against looking at the world in simple black and white terms. But when confronted by something that seriously upsets them, they immediately abandon that principle and wholeheartedly embrace every libel directed against their enemy; they are glad to hear he's stupid and delighted to repeat it. Bush's impact on the United States has been profound, and nowhere more marked than among his educated, baffled, deeply frustrated enemies.