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Playing the I-Card? It's No Sure Way to Victory

Politics * An intellectual candidate can cut both ways. Think Jefferson. Think Stevenson.

November 02, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Intentionally or not, in this last week of the campaign, the presidential candidates have been reduced in many quarters to stock characters: the Frat Boy and the Know-It-All. The Cowboy and the Nerd. And the method by which many voters make their choice has been boiled down to the now-ubiquitous phrase "comfort level." With whom are American voters more comfortable? The folksy governor of Texas with the unfortunate tendency to smirk? Or the brainy vice president with the lamentable inability to relax?

The eternal battle between the "intellectual" and the "common man" is one of the most enduring story lines in American mythology. Although neither candidate fits the prototype exactly--Gore is more professional politician than scholar, and Bush's Connecticut elite pedigree contradicts his down-home persona--not since the Dwight Eisenhower-Adlai Stevenson race in 1952 have two candidates embodied the tradition so well.

By claiming Stendahl's "The Red and the Black" as his favorite book, for example, Gore cast himself with the intelligentsia; by making fun of tax breaks for people who use solar energy in their homes, Bush took his place with regular folks.

The subject of intelligence in this presidential campaign has been burbling under the surface for months and has reached a boil with Gore supporters calling Bush's intellect into question and Bush supporters responding that instinct trumps book learning.

For fervent partisans, the choice on Tuesday will be easy. But for many voters, including the small but significant number who, according to polls, are still vacillating, the very real differences in the candidates's proposals seem less important than the candidates' personalities and intellects. And while this attitude may seem at odds with the process of selecting the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, it is certainly not new, though it has taken on different shadings through the years.

"There is a home-grown Yankee do-it-yourself attitude that is suspicious of someone who seems to know too much," says Russell Jacoby, author of "The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in the Age of Apathy." "We love education but we don't love educated people. There is a basic democratic resentment of the elite, often symbolized by the educated--that they are not like us, and so, not to be trusted. Like Adlai Stevenson, who was characterized as an egghead."

Americans, he says, have a contradictory demand that a president be presidential and folksy. "It's schizophrenic," he says. "Because you can't be presidential and be just like the guy down the block. If you look at the early great presidents--Jefferson, Adams--they could not get elected today. The founding fathers were too intellectual."

According Richard Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Anti-intellectualism in American Life," the founding fathers themselves struggled against a populist backlash. In 1796, Federalists fearing that Thomas Jefferson would succeed George Washington, campaigned against the author of the Declaration of Independence by dubbing him "a philosopher" and so inclined to "timidity, whimsicalness and a disposition to reason from certain principles, and not from the true nature of man."

In 1828, the defeat of the very intellectual President John Quincy Adams by Andrew Jackson, whom supporters described as "the unlettered man of the West, the nursling of the wilds . . . little versed in books, unconnected by science with the tradition of the past . . . ." made it clear that the American public did not necessarily equate knowledge with wisdom. Writing in 1835, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville lamented that in America "there is no class . . . by which the labors of the intellect are held in honor."

For the next hundred years, Hofstadter argues, the tension between the learned and the instinctual did much to define American politics. Under Franklin Roosevelt--he of the "Brain Trust"--intellectuals and academics enjoyed a rare moment of public acclaim. But at the dawn of the Cold War, McCarthyism created an atmosphere in which the educated and the artistic were subjected to criticism and ridicule at a national level. Against that backdrop, the Stevenson-Eisenhower race of 1952, writes Hofstadter, "dramatized the contrast between intellect and philistinism." Eisenhower's victory, averred Time magazine, "discloses an alarming fact long suspected: There is a wide and unhealthy gap between the American intellectuals and the people."

Almost 30 years later, the defeat of President Jimmy Carter, a former governor and nuclear engineer, by Ronald Reagan, a former governor and actor, was considered by many to be the ultimate symbol of the triumph of personal charisma over intellectual credentials. In their first presidential debate, Carter seemed to have a superior grasp of the facts, but with one well-timed gibe--"There you go again,"--Reagan turned Carter's intellectual advantage into a fatal flaw.

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