I Can't Stand This Bush-Is-a-Moron Smugness

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There's a scene in the movie "Analyze This" in which the mob boss's fat bodyguard, Jelly, describes himself, with endearing objectivity, as "a f------ moron." But when the psychiatrist (Billy Crystal) repeats the assessment, telling the goombah frankly that he really is "a f------ moron," Jelly objects.

"From you," Jelly explains, "it sounds kinda negative."

The Democrats are sounding kinda negative about George W. Bush. They're using Jelly's language. Interested parties are filing nasty little amicus briefs all over the media, their viciousness flying just below the ethical radar — not traceable, in any case, to the Democratic candidate himself, who is off working on merit badges in health care and sizzling monogamy. The word being delivered by Gore's helpers — maliciously, humorously — is that the governor of Texas, the Republican nominee for president of the United States, is "a f------ moron."

Here's Paul Begala, former Clinton White House counsel, in a new book, out next week, called "Is Our Children Learning? The Case Against George W. Bush: "You don't have what it takes to be president. Even your most loyal defenders say you're a few beans short of a full burrito."

Gaily Sheehy in the forthcoming Vanity Fair alleges that Bush suffers from dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. These are disabilities, you know, and (to speak correctly) a special kind of challenge; but (to speak incorrectly) he's still a f------ moron! The New Yorker's back page was devoted last week to a procession of cartoons of Bush entitled "Language Gets the Death Penalty," and quoting some of W.'s more hilarious gaffes ("I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.")

And so on. The genius of this scurrilous political work is that it is being done just at the moment when George W. Bush really is behaving like a f------ moron. His operation is the Original Austin Amateur Hour. Dubya's tractionless, spluttering campaign, belching smoke and throwing rods, seeming to do everything wrong post-Labor Day — arguing idiotically about the debates, for example — seems in itself to dramatize the supposed brain deficit that has been the subject of whispers and eye-rollings for months now.

I must say I mistrust the moron ploy. I have been listening to it all my life. Dwight Eisenhower was a moron; Adlai Stevenson was so elegantly articulate, you know, and Eisenhower couldn't even complete a sentence grammatically. And Ronald Reagan, of course, was a complete imbecile. I don't compare W. to Ike or Reagan, who, unlike W., could laugh all the way to the electoral college. But that Manhattan dinner-party smugness — moron jokes as the coup de grace — gives me hives.

There's no denying that George W. Bush's campaign does seem mysteriously and spectacularly stupid. He's been playing Gore's game, and losing. He may be in the process of losing the election — and not by a close margin, either.

Exactly eight years ago this week, I walked into President George Herbert Walker Bush's White House (actually, it was the old Executive Office Building) to visit a friend, Jim Pinkerton, who was then a domestic affairs policy adviser to the elder Bush. I was stunned by Pinkerton's pessimism about Bush's race against young Clinton. It was only mid-September, I said. But then Pinkerton introduced me to some of the people on the White House staff and the Bush campaign. I saw Pinkerton's point: No energy, no ideas, a stupefied sense of entitlement, brownouts in blue blazers; Bush's White House felt like three o'clock on a Sunday afternoon at the dumbest country club in America. Jim's right, I said to myself. Bush is going to lose.

W.'s campaign feels like that right now. The hope for W., if it exists, is for him to learn from his father's mistakes. Bush should be attacking Gore vigorously, relentlessly. Instead of bickering over details of drug prescription plans and the like, trying to beat a policy wonk at policy wonking, Bush should be sketching, with strong, simple, repetitive clarity, the principles that he stands for, as opposed to those Gore represents. Gore is vulnerable as a throwback liberal, a big- government, all-daddy statist whose big rock candy mountain mentality assumes that the lemonade springs and the bluebird sings, and little need be done to encourage capital investment. The long prosperity has produced a certain heedlessness about the economic facts of life.

Yet beneath the heedlessness runs a countercurrent of anxiety. Can this last? The news on OPEC and oil prices this week — the European gas lines, the déjà vu — could send a sobering tremor, or worse, through the presidential proceedings.

There may yet be occasion to recall a quote by Proudhon: "The fecundity of the unexpected far exceeds the prudence of statesmen." My guess, though, is that it is already too late for George W. Bush.