Hey, did you hear the latest Bushism? The master of verbal gaffes was at it again recently when he tried to invoke the memory of the Minutemen of Massachusetts, who, in the words of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, “fired the shot heard ’round the world.” Except somehow the line came out “fired the shirt ’round the world.”
What, you missed it?
Maybe that’s because it wasn’t George W. Bush who said it. No, it was Edward M. Kennedy who mangled the oft-quoted line from Emerson’s “Concord Hymn” during his speech at the Democratic National Convention. Kennedy, of course, has been fracturing syntax in public for four decades, yet somehow his bloopers aren’t trotted out as evidence of his dimwittedness. There’s no calendar of Teddy-Twisters to re-assure jittery Republicans each morning how much cleverer they are than the senior senator from Massachusetts.
Then again, you probably also missed Hillary Clinton’s history lesson a few years back during which she held forth on the life of Sojourner Truth: “I really hope our children learn about Sojourner Truth … because she did stand for truth and she did sojourn in difficult places time and time again… She went through swamps, she was chased by dogs. She was shot at … and she found her way to freedom” whereupon, according to Clinton, our heroine “turned around and went back. She would send out the word to the plantations that she was coming back. And if people could get there … in the trees or on the side of their swamp, she would be there.”
The trouble is, Sojourner Truth never was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Hillary was recounting the life of Harriet Tubman.
Now imagine if George Bush had given that speech.
The myth of the president’s stupidity is a curious psychological phenomenon. It derives in part, I suspect, from Bush’s overt religiosity — which many half-educated media types ridicule in order to amuse their quarter-educated audience. There’s probably also an element of regional snobbery at work. Bush speaks with a pronounced drawl. As Victor Davis Hanson has noted, the New York and Los Angeles elite will forgive a Southern accent, even find it charming, if it comes from the mouth of a Democrat like Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter. But from the mouth of a Republican, it connotes a character from Deliverance. Certainly, Bush is not as linguistically adroit as his supporters would wish. But if you stick a microphone in anyone’s face often enough, he’s going to say silly things.
Now it’s true, for what it’s worth, that as a young man Bush didn’t do especially well on his SAT exams — at least compared with other Yale students. He got a 566 verbal and a 640 math, relatively low by Ivy League standards, but the scores ranked him, overall, around the 80th and 90th percentiles respectively. (His combined 1206 is actually the equivalent of a 1280 in current SAT scoring because the test was “re-centered” — read: dumbed-down — in the mid 1990s.) Earlier this year, Linda Gottfredson, co-director of the University of Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society, converted Bush’s SAT numbers to an IQ score; she factored in high school norms from an Educational Testing Service study done in the early 1960s, when Bush took the exam, and derived an IQ of 125 — which would place Bush in the 95th percentile. By comparison, John F. Kennedy’s IQ was measured at 119.
To date, John Kerry has not released either his SAT or IQ scores. And in truth intelligence is much more than a number — as cognitive psychologists constantly reassure us. Still, it’s worth pondering the quality of mind that came out with this doozy, from a Democratic candidates’ debate last September: “If we hadn’t voted the way we voted, we would not have been able to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president, in effect, who already had the votes and who was obviously asking serious questions about whether or not the Congress was going to be there to enforce the effort to create a threat.”
Suddenly, a guy who garbles a few phrases doesn’t sound quite so bad.