They are still at it, still doing it, still playing their simple little tune and wondering why more people aren't singing along. George W. Bush has been the president of the United States for more than three months now, and they are still talking about his intelligence.
They, of course, are reporters. The two most recent, as far as I know, are syndicated columnist Molly Ivins and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tom Fiedler of the Miami Herald.
Ivins, who seems to me the dean of the school of front-stabbing, smart-ass journalism from which Maureen Dowd was graduated summa cum laude, said this about Bush (or, as she prefers to call him, Shrub): "Everyone knows the man has no clue, but no one has the courage to say it. I mean, good gawd, the man is as he always has been, barely adequate."
From Fiedler comes an example of the best that Bush can do in some journalistic circles: the backhanded compliment: The president "doesn't have a lot of airs," Fiedler explains. "He is by no means a dummy. He mangles sentence structure, but he graduated with an MBA from Harvard Business School."
It made sense to question Bush's intelligence before the election. After all, he had no track record in national and international politics to serve as a guide to his future behavior, and, truth to tell, his campaign gave us reasons to suspect him of a shortfall of IQ points.
But now he does have a track record. He has lobbied Congress for a tax cut. Can you disagree with his plan? Of course. Can you call it stupid? By no stretch of the imagination.
He has lobbied the American people for educational reform. Can you disagree with his plan? Of course. Can you call it stupid? Not in any conceivable way.
He has handled the Chinese surveillance-plane incident, winning the release of 24 crew members. Can you disagree with the way he did it? Of course. Can you call it stupid? Not if you are a citizen of the planet Earth.
So why do reporters keep playing their tune? Two reasons, I think, and neither of them to the media's credit.
First, journalists who cover politics have a mean streak, a superiority complex. It has been that way ever since Lyndon Johnson deceived them about Vietnam and Richard Nixon deceived them about Watergate. In other words, there is a reason for their feelings, an explanation.
But there is no justification. The meaner they are, the more cynical their readers and viewers become; the more devalued the entire political process becomes; the more democracy itself seems like a kind of con game, unworthy of participation either by decent candidates or a thoughtful voter. Yes, there have been deceitful presidents — and senators and representatives and governors and dogcatchers. But our legal system works on the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Our political system cannot work unless we presume that a person is ethical until proven shady.
Or intelligent until proven daft.
Second, journalists who cover politics are sometimes intimidated by the complexities of the issues they report. Tax codes. New ways to think about education. Spy planes and the seesaw of governmental negotiations. These stories might appear in black and white in newspapers, but they are not black-and-white issues. They might appear in color on television, but there are hues under the surface that the camera cannot detect. And the reporters, very often, cannot master — not, at least, in the time allotted to them.
And so they clutch at simplicity. They treated Al Gore unfairly during the campaign, making his personality tics into matters of policy. And they treated, and continue to treat, Bush unfairly, making his intelligence into an ongoing subject of speculation.
It should not be, and the irony about journalists who keep singing the song is that they are saying more about their own intelligence than about the president's; they are confessing their own inability or unwillingness to report on serious matters of government, their own mean-spirited desire to provide insults rather than information.
So many in the media have no clue. They are, as they have always been, barely adequate.
I mean, good gawd.