In 1981, former Harry Truman consigliere and LBJ Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford memorably labeled the new Republican sheriff in town an "amiable dunce." At the time, Clifford was the living embodiment of the Washington establishment, and his glib analysis showed that while you can find the occasional memorable phrase on the D.C. cocktail circuit, facile conclusions delight the crowd more than serious inquiry. It comes as no small irony that in the years that followed, the discovery of Reagan's voluminous private writings revealed him to be the finest writer and most original political philosopher to sit in the Oval Office since at least Theodore Roosevelt. As for the condescending genius Mr. Clifford, he ended up the 1980s enmeshed in the BCCI scandal, thanks largely to his own confusion. At least that's how he told the story, complaining to the New York Times, "I have a choice of seeming either stupid or venal." Clifford opted for the former.
However obtuse, Clifford's summation of Reagan sat on the cutting edge of a new school of political partisanship. Starting with Gerald Ford, the inside-the-beltway class and its amplifiers in the media have routinely decided that Republicans who seek national office are dullards. Literally every Republican candidate for president since 1980 has had his intellect belittled. Even Bob Dole, a candidate who had spent decades proving his remarkable mental acuity in Congress, had to face such salvos because his age had allegedly dulled his mental edge. Sound vaguely familiar?
Of course, no such scrutiny greets Democratic candidates. Barack Obama can't make it through a 30 second extemporaneous statement on his campaign bus without a profusion of "ums" and "ahs." And yet Obama's stumbling diction has yet to interest his worshippers in the press the way that George H.W. Bush's periodic wrestling matches with the English language did. For those fortunate enough to have forgotten the 1988 presidential race, Michael Dukakis's principal talking point was that he was more competent, i.e. more intelligent, than Bush.
During the 2004 campaign, the New York Times's Howell Raines wrote, "Does anyone in America doubt that Kerry has a higher IQ than (George W.) Bush? I'm sure the candidates' SATs and college transcripts would put Kerry far ahead." Of course, Raines could have done some research before making such a sweeping statement, but that wouldn't have been nearly as enjoyable. Take it from one who knows--polemicizing is much more fun and much less work than analyzing.
If Raines had bothered with research, he would have found he was wrong on all counts. Kerry's college transcript which included four D's in his freshman year at Yale was a special embarrassment given that candidate Kerry had boasted about his serious pursuit of scholarship compared to the president's frat-boy frivolities. But in Raines's defense, how could he have known that research was necessary? Everyone understood that Kerry possessed a blazing intellect while Bush was some village's missing idiot. Everyone among the self-satisfied liberal media, anyway.
The pattern continues. When Barack Obama trotted out Washington warhorse Joe Biden as his vice presidential pick, the media immediately clucked "gravitas" and "experience." Okay, we can't deny the "experience" angle, as Biden has occupied a Senate seat since Obama was 11 years old. But one would think that "gravitas" would imply a political record noteworthy for more than just its length. Guys like Sam Nunn are respected by members of both parties; during his long stay in the senate, Nunn was always serious and often correct. Until Barack Obama plucked him out of tiny Delaware, Joe Biden's principal renown was for talking too much and saying too little.
And yet the media has credulously treated Biden as a serious figure, a courtesy they did not extend him during either of his presidential runs. One can only imagine how inquisitive reporters would handle a Republican nominee for vice-president who graduated 86th in his law school class of 95 as Biden did. As for Biden's unfortunate history with plagiarism, the less said the better. At least that seems to be the media's view now that he's on the ticket. Somehow I doubt that 36 years in the senate would wash away such stains for a Republican. Speaking of 36 years, that's almost the exact length of time that Joe Biden has also served as a garrulous gaffe machine. And yet no one from the New York Times or Washington Post has yet mined his greatest hits and reported the comedy gold that lurks within.
Of course, Sarah Palin will get no such luck. Because it's difficult to argue that Barack Obama has more experience or has achieved greater accomplishments than Palin, the Democrats are left to fall back on their old Obama standby--Judgment. As Judgment is applied in the Obama context, it means Obama can serve as president because he's extremely intelligent. After all, here's Howell Raines's dream candidate--a guy who really did get good grades in school.
So in order to bring down Palin, her malefactors on the left will have to argue a lack of "readiness," which with the thinly credentialed Obama on the other ticket can only serve as a shorthand for lack of intelligence. Chances are, ink-stained wretches are plumbing Palin's every past public utterance desperately seeking the evidence that proves she too is an amiable dunce. Of course, any misstatement on the campaign trail will serve as prima facie proof of her dim intellect. True, political observers have formed gambling pools wagering on when Joe Biden will make his first hilarious gaffe as Barack Obama's running mate. While that gaffe, inevitable as it is, may do damage to the ticket, no one on the New York Times editorial board will conclude from it that Joe Biden isn't that bright. Sarah Palin will not receive the same benefit of the doubt.
In some ways, being Sarah Palin for the next two months and change doesn't sound like a lot of fun. In spite of her many and notable self-made successes, an entire intellectual industry has already sprouted up with the sole intention of proving that she's a moron. The left wants to Quayle-ize her, and their efforts to do so won't be half-hearted.
But there is good news for Sarah Palin as the latter-day Howell Raineses and Clark Cliffords line up to smear her: She controls how the American people will come to view her much more than they do. There's a reason her excellent speech on Friday set off such a firestorm of rage and irrational hissy-fits on the left. Speaking directly to the American people, Palin cut an attractive and intelligent figure. Regardless of the left's anger, the American people will believe their own eyes rather than a frustrated blogger's or haughty anchorman's blustery "analysis."
When Clark Clifford toured the D.C. cocktail party circuit with his "amiable dunce" assessment of Ronald Reagan, most of the assembled sippers agreed. History proved them wrong. But that's not what really has the left rattled as they set off in pursuit of Sarah Palin. The American people knew Ronald Reagan was no dunce long before the Clark Cliffords of Washington admitted as much.
Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.