Wise versus smart II

Posted: Feb 08, 2001 12:00 AM

THE RECENT publication of a collection of Ronald Reagan's radio broadcasts from the 1970s is not only a fitting tribute on the occasion of his 90th birthday, it provides a great insight into the thinking behind his policies as president in the 1980s. The book is titled "Reagan in His Own Hand" and was compiled by Kiron Skinner and Martin and Annelise Anderson, who have left Reagan's essays that he read on the air appear just as he wrote them, including his crossed-out words and phrases that were never broadcast.

This book is of more than historical interest, important as that is. Its implications say something about our world today, when so many questions and assertions have been made as to who on the current political scene is smart and who is not.

It was the prevailing opinion among politicians, journalists and the intelligentsia that Ronald Reagan was not very smart -- "an amiable dunce" was the way one Washington insider put it. Jimmy Carter's White House was delighted when the Republicans nominated him to be their opponent in the 1980 elections because they thought he would be easy to beat. But Reagan won in a landslide.

Before he arrived in Washington to take office, it was widely believed that this cowboy actor from California was in for a rude awakening when he tried to cope with the sophisticated operators in the nation's capital. Yet he put through "the Reagan revolution" in both domestic and foreign policy, without ever having Republican control of both Houses of Congress -- and without having Republican control of either House during his second administration.

It was expected that savvy world leaders would take advantage of his naivete and eat him alive in international negotiations and confrontations. But President Reagan got the Soviet Union to back down from its military adventurism and even to take down the Berlin wall -- as a prelude to the collapse of the whole Communist bloc in Eastern Europe.

It was impossible for many to credit Ronald Reagan with these things, even though he had predicted them -- and had been ridiculed for saying that the end of the Russian Communist system was at hand. But the publication of the scripts of his radio broadcasts before he took office show his clear understanding of complex issues. That is what enabled him to puncture fashionable and sophisticated nonsense with a few straight common sense phrases that earned him the title of "the great communicator."

Today we are hearing echoes of the old sneers and jeers at Reagan's mind when the smartness of people like Al Gore and Hillary Clinton are contrasted with the supposed lack of smartness of President George W. Bush. As in the past, the standard for smartness is not achievement but glib rhetoric, smug airs and presumptuous proposals.

By this standard, someone who always has a quick answer, like Al Gore, has been rated far above someone like George W. Bush, who often stops to think before he speaks, instead of trying to give the impression that he has all the answers at his fingertips. By the standard of snappy responses, Einstein would have been rated a chowderhead, if we didn't know of his historic accomplishments.

But rating people by what they have accomplished is rare today. Take Al Gore -- please. Just what has he actually done, aside from talking a great game? Bush was a jet pilot. How many dumb jet pilots do you know?

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Gore took a soft course to fulfill his science requirement, instead of tackling chemistry or physics -- and he still got poor grades, as he did later at the Vanderbilt law school, having failed 5 out of 8 courses at divinity school in between. In the 1970s, he bought the hysterical Club of Rome report, which was full of pretentious mathematical models that foretold the world's economies grinding to a halt in the 1980s -- the very decade in which an unprecedented era of prosperity and economic growth began.

Hillary Clinton has been portrayed by liberals and radical feminists as the very epitome of smartness and sophistication. But just what has she ever achieved, aside from using her husband's political clout to advance her own career, whether from shady land deals in Arkansas or winning an election in a state that traditionally elects Democrats to the Senate? Hillary's one great initiative was her health care plan that was shot down in flames.

Smartness is not wisdom, either now or back in the days of the Reagan administration. But many in the media have yet to learn that lesson.