Americans have always made sport of intellectuals. Who hasn't heard the question, "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" Or, "If you're so smart, why do you do such dumb things?"
George Wallace, who carried four states as a candidate for president in 1968, drew whoops of approval with his derision of "pointy-headed 'swaydo-intellectuals' who can't park their bicycles straight." William Safire, no intellectual slouch, gave Spiro Agnew his famous putdown of the chattering class as "the nattering nabobs of negativism."
When he ran twice as the Democratic presidential nominee, the genial, erudite Adlai Stevenson was derided as "too smart to be president." Like Hamlet, he was thought to overthink everything, so paralyzed by intellect that he could never make a decision. No one doubted that Bill Clinton was intelligent, with an I.Q. way up there, but his lapses in judgment, moral and otherwise, made him seem not always very smart. Woodrow Wilson, the high-minded college professor, never could persuade the American people that his idealism was wise.
Americans, the most practical people almost anywhere, prefer doers to thinkers, the earthy to the esoteric, hard heads to soft IQs and plain thinking to squishy sophistication. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that democracy makes it especially hard to trust intellectuals because every one of the common men believes he can think for himself and has to be persuaded individually.
In the 20th century, the intellectuals of the right went to extremes to defend fascism just as the intellectuals of the left defended communism. George Bernard Shaw could see no evil in Stalin because he so wanted to believe that communism would succeed. Ezra Pound made broadcasts for the fascists in World War II, a traitor blinded by personal prejudice. Americans may lean in one direction or another ideologically, but we prefer leaders who confront the specific without wasting time on abstractions.
Thus the events of the past year changed the image of George W. Bush. He was harshly mocked for his perceived intellectual shortcomings during the presidential campaign, but all that evaporated overnight on Sept. 11. It's difficult now to remember what all the fuss was about.
The political process imposes generalizations that make us see what we want to see. It was no coincidence that a hoax on the Internet, attributing a low Bush IQ score to a fictitious study at a nonexistent "university," first circulated in academic circles. It seemed irrelevant to those who were instinctively drawn to the man. His down-home qualities, like those of Ronald Reagan, made him suspect to the so-called educated classes.
Now he stands astride history as one of those men who looks like he's got the right stuff. At the Washington dinner parties and social events where the political elite meet, I've not heard a single person wish that Bill Clinton or Al Gore were at 1600 Pennsylvania to manage the war on terrorism.
Alexis de Tocqueville may have the explanation for why Americans are just now taking an accurate measure of the new president. He observed that a strong sense of narcissism runs through democratic voters. "It is difficult to make the inhabitants of democracies listen when one is not talking about themselves," he wrote. "They do not hear what is said to them because they are always preoccupied with what they are doing."
Secular intellectuals, of course, first came to power in the Enlightenment, when the Roman church fathers lost ground. "For the first time in human history, and with growing confidence and audacity, men arose to assert that they could diagnose the ills of society and cure them with their own unaided intellects," writes historian Paul Johnson in his history of intellectuals from the 18th century to the present. They were helped by the recognition that popes and pastors had become decadent and corrupt. Secular intellectuals mocked people of faith and assumed a leadership without a spiritual dimension.
One of the strengths of George Bush, who does not pretend to be an intellectual, seems to rise from deeply felt religious faith that informs his intelligence. At a White House Christmas party the other night I overheard him praise a certain newspaper editor, known for his biting commentary, for bringing a "conscience" to the Washington political scene. It was an odd compliment for a man the president often agrees with but sometimes does not. Or maybe not so odd. And very refreshing.