Political Hay

Smart Enough to Be Cretins

Qualities that make Messrs. Carter and Gore two of a kind.

By 5.29.07

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There seems to be a recurring bifurcation in American political life between those who would rather be right and those who would rather be president. The longer the debate over the Iraq war goes on, the more often I keep coming back to Senator Jim Webb's reply to President Bush's State of the Union Address earlier this year. As I mentioned in my column of last January 29, it struck me at the time that Senator Webb was one of many Democrats who seemed to equate effective leadership with being right -- that is, with predictive foresight in a given case, as in foreseeing the perils that would attend the occupation of Iraq. But intelligence and perspicacity are just two among many valuable qualities in a leader, and very far from being the only things that matter. What about virtue and fortitude? Determination and resolve? Courage and honor? Any fool can be right in foreseeing danger. It takes a rarer quality to lead when, as now, danger is unavoidable whatever we do.

Now comes Jimmy Carter, who was so good at foreseeing dangers that he never committed American troops to dealing with any of them -- apart from the Desert One fiasco -- and instead spent the miserable four years of his presidency bleating about human rights to those who had nothing but contempt for him and the once-formidable power he had no wish to use nor any idea how to use it if he had. Because President Bush lacks a little of Mr. Carter's Falstaffian discretion when it comes to fighting America's enemies, the latter professes to think that "this administration has been the worst in history." Gosh, Jimmy! Did you come up with that zinger all by yourself, or did you steal it from the bumper sticker? You'd think that the Christ-like former president would blush to be nothing but a conduit for this well-worn leftie talking-point.

As Gerard Baker says in the Times of London, "Being told by Mr. Carter that you're the worst president in history is like being told by William McGonagall that your poetry stinks." But at least the former president showed some sense of delicacy in pulling back a bit when he said that he had been "careless" with his words and wished "not to criticize any president personally." By contrast, the former vice president, Al Gore, is so eaten up with bitterness that in his new book he doesn't scruple to characterize the man he lost the 2000 election to as (according to Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post) "a lawbreaker, a liar and a man with the blood of thousands of innocent lives on his hands" -- and all because he thinks he's so much smarter than he is.

It takes a certain amount of -- what shall we call it? self-confidence? self-importance? self-righteousness? stupidity? -- to title an attack on your political opponents The Assault on Reason. What really makes it funny is that such intemperate language purports to be in the service of a larger critique of the debasement of political discourse! Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, brother Al, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? He proclaims himself the champion of "reason, logic and truth" -- not to mention "reality" -- against the general decay of these qualities in the country and the specific denial of them by the Bush administration. And all this on the strength of what? Why, that two thirds of the American people now agree with him rather than President Bush about the wisdom of fighting in Iraq! Doesn't that mean that he was right?

No it doesn't, actually, but it's close enough for government work. I have always thought that there is a bit of a self-contradiction in this sort of argument. On the one hand, Mr. Gore is trying very hard to persuade us that the President is a fool, an idiot, a cretin. Anybody could have foreseen what a disaster Iraq would be. It was, according to him, "a decision that was not only tragic but absurd." On the other hand, he, like Senator Webb, seems to expect us to be stupefied with awe at his own intelligence and foresight when, on his own showing, anyone only marginally less stupid than the President could have seen as much. Mr. Gore goes even further than Senator Webb by claiming not only that he foresaw the disaster of Iraq but that he could have foreseen the disaster of September 11th, if only anyone had thought to ask him about it in advance. For what else are we to make of his criticism that the Bush administration ignored "clear warnings" that could have prevented the terror attacks?

As so often in the past, Al Gore appears not to want to do anything in particular but only to impress us with how bright he is. He has never stopped being the schoolboy with his hand in the air, the apple polisher and suck-up who needs to be told by the teacher how clever he is. Nor is there ever any shortage of those who are prepared to tell him. "His revenge is to have been right about a lot of things," writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post: "right about the power of the Internet, right about global warming and right about Iraq." Some people this side of cretinism might argue with the political intelligence of scolding people for being too much afraid of terrorists and not enough afraid of global warming, but let's leave to one side the question of whether he was actually right about any of these things. The real point is that he imagines that the only thing in life better than being right is letting people know that you are right. In this he is again like Jimmy Carter, whose policy on human rights was only to let everyone know how he cared about them. Neither man has ever learned that being right without the will or the capacity for action is the cheapest form of self-gratification.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.