Almost every news article about Bush's trip to Europe last week said that the president had somehow beaten expectations. Two separate stories in the New York Times, for example, said Bush had surpassed "the limited expectations" of his trip.
Our own James Carney in his TIME.com column this week explained that Bush "loves to be underestimated."
Of course, some would say the bar is so low that he can always jump over it. But the question is, does he deliberately contribute to this underestimation? I think he probably does, and I imagine he does so in much the same way as a Republican predecessor did who was also underestimated. Dwight Eisenhower was roundly derided by the liberal intelligentsia as a Mr. Malaprop, a golf-playing, crony-loving dim bulb. But Stephen Ambrose, in his classic biography of Eisenhower, describes how Ike deliberately mangled the language to put reporters off the track or to get them to think that he didn't fully comprehend the issues. Ike found that he could accomplish more when people thought he might not be up to the task.
The crafty fellow who likes to be underestimated is a classic character in American history and literature. Ben Franklin liked to pose as the common man, and the simple sayings in Poor Richard's Almanac cloaked profound ideas. Both Tom Sawyer and his creator Mark Twain liked to pass themselves off as country bumpkins who were easily duped before they cleverly duped you. Abraham Lincoln invariably described himself as a slow-speaking country lawyer before outwitting his rivals.
But this strain of modesty sometimes even false modesty is becoming rarer and rarer in American life. Braggadocio and trash talk are the rule these days. Once upon a time an athlete who hit a homer to win the game in the bottom of the ninth would say, "Aw, I was just lucky to hit that curve." But Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath changed all that. With Ali's "I am the greatest" speeches and Joe Namath's confident predictions of victories, sports etiquette was altered forever. In the NBA finals, Shaq pounded his opponents in print as much as he pounded them on the court.
Politicians have followed along in this sea-change. They always predict victory, even when they're down 20 points in the polls. They tell you once and then tell you again and again why they are the better candidate. This is something that would have been very foreign to Lincoln, and even to John Kennedy. It was bad manners as well as bad politics to be over-confident and boastful.
Bush is a throwback when it comes to this new style of political bravado. His combination of Wasp reticence and Texas canniness gives him an old-fashioned feel. If Clinton was often too clever by half, in Disraeli's famous phrase, Bush sometimes deliberately seems only half-clever. But who do we like more: the smartest kid in class who sits in the first row and answers every question, or the fellow who sits in the back row and surprises you when he gets the right answer? I'm sure George Bush never sat in the first row in any class he was ever in. And I'd be surprised if Bill Clinton ever didn't.
Of course, it ain't boasting if you can do it. But it isn't exactly modesty either. And while Bush's success in lowering expectations for himself has worked with the press, it doesn't seem to be working as well with the folks at home, at least according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll, which suggests Bush's European jaunt didn't do anything to help his approval ratings.
Remember, though, that the fox learned never to count Brer Rabbit out.