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George W.'s anti-intellectualism


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2000

Rich, well-connected John F. Kennedy was educated at an exclusive prep school and an Ivy League college. Lyndon Johnson, his bootstrap-elevated, double-negative-using vice president ("I didn't go to Harvard; I went to San Marcos State Teachers College!"), despised him for it. LBJ saw JFK as a spoiled brat who parlayed his father's power and money into a political career.

Rich, well-connected George W. Bush was educated at an exclusive prep school and an Ivy League college. He also used his father's power and the financial access his family name gave him to build a political career. Yet despite the similarities of their backgrounds, George W. Bush does not want to be JFK: He'd rather be LBJ (minus the progressive politics), a straight-shooting, butt-kicking, barbecue-savoring Texan, who loudly castigates the supposedly rarified world of the Ivy League.

Is this some form of self-loathing? Or smart campaign strategy? For George W. to wrap himself in the cowhide mantle of LBJ's anti-intellectualism certainly reinforces his Texas credentials. But it seems strange coming from a man who was born with a whole matched set of silver spoons in his mouth, whose childhood was spent shuttling between his daddy's oil fields in Texas and the family estate in Maine. It's even stranger when you consider George W.'s education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., one of the best private schools in the country, and Yale, one of the great universities of the world.

But Yale did not open up a world of paradigm-challenging knowledge or philosophical debate for George W. His time at college revolved not around the library but around his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and hard-partying friends from his own moneyed haute WASP background. He has been quoted as saying "I don't remember any kind of heaviness ruining my time at Yale."

Yet the serious side of Yale -- the emergence of left-leaning thinkers on the faculty, the burgeoning student protest movement -- did leave a mark: resentment of what George Wallace used to call "pointy-headed intellectuals." According to a piece by Hanna Rosin in the Washington Post, George W.'s sullen dislike of the activist intelligentsia has evolved into a political ideology.

Rosin traces George W.'s core values to a profound disdain for the '60s (which as a mythic time actually extends to 1974), the acid-fueled, tie-dyed, Woodstock-attending, war-hating, Clinton-producing '60s Newt Gingrich, William Bennett and Lynne Cheney (wife of GOP vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney and one-time head of the National Endowment for the Humanities) blame for every evil in contemporary American society.

But George W. did not spend his '60s struggling against the counterculture: He spent the time following one of the decade's supposedly most damaging dictates: If it feels good, do it. George W.'s style was more Playboy than SDS, more Animal House than Haight-Ashbury, but by all accounts he made up in the pursuit of pleasure what he lacked in academic rigor. Yet when American might-makes-right was questioned, the status quo attacked and even the system of Yale "legacies" challenged by the type George W. and his Deke brothers called "the Grind," the book-wormy egalitarian crowd, led by Kingman Brewster, the reformist president of Yale, he feared that a new elite was being formed that would make the old American ruling class -- people like the Bushes -- irrelevant. Eventually, he decided that hedonism was wrong and those still clinging to the '60s values of the Great Society, self-fulfillment and aggressive social justice were wrong, too. With the help of Karl Rove, his longtime adviser, and the same triumvirate of right-wing gurus who shaped much of Newt Gingrich's thinking, his resentments were "refined" into the vague collection of ideas called "compassionate conservatism."

George W.'s informal think-tank, David Horowitz, Marvin Olasky and Myron Magnet, all wrote influential books excoriating the '60s as the time when the moral and social order of America fell apart. Magnet's magnum opus, The Dream and the Nightmare, argues that the selfishness of the "do your own thing" bourgeoisie trickled down to the poor, who couldn't afford to be feckless or rebel against dominant values. David Horowitz, a "reformed radical," calls the social activism of the '60s "adolescent." And Marvin Olasky, a one-time Communist-turned frothing reactionary, advocates dismantling what's left of the welfare state and returning to Victorian-style private charity, including church-run group homes for unwed mothers. Somehow the rich will also be induced to "befriend and educate" the poor, alleviating the need for governmental social programs.

All these philosophers of the New Right share George W.'s deep distrust of the leftover '60s intellectuals they say run the Democratic Party, the teachers' unions, the NAACP, the universities and the media. This is nothing new: Newt Gingrich ignited the 1994 "revolution" by casting the Clintons -- Ivy League, intellectual and proud of it -- as the "enemies of normal Americans." Al Gore is, of course, an Ivy League man (Harvard '69) and something of a pointy-head himself, hardly the kind of man Deke would have rushed in George W.'s day.

No doubt George W. will try to paint his opponent as part of the sneering, effete class of inside-the-Beltway solons out of touch with the real citizens of, say, Texas. Despite having one of the best state universities in the nation, in Texas, anti-intellectualism is practically a religion. Columnist Molly Ivins points out that people realize "Dubya may not be the brightest porch light on the block," but like him because of it, not in spite of it. So it makes sense that George W. will keep trying to run away from his preppie, Ivy League background. His father did it, too: In the 1992 presidential campaign debates, Daddy George tried to cast himself as a plain-spoken man of the people innocent of the wily debating skills of Bill Clinton, with that fancy Oxford education. But since everyone knew Clinton was a barefoot Arkansas country boy who got to fine colleges through hard work, and everyone knew George Bush was a Yalie who tried to take on a Texan sensibility by eating pork scratchings, it didn't work.

George W. is much more successful than his father at playing Texan, affecting the LBJ cadences, the cowboy boots, the big ole hat, the implication that he knows his way around a plug of chaw better than he knows his way around a volume of Spinoza. But his Texas-honed resentment of the elite he claims (without much substance) replaced the elite of which he and his family were members raises questions of how well-worked out "compassionate conservatism" will ever be as a governing philosophy. Texas' social problems do not inspire confidence that the ideas of Magnet, Horowitz and Olasky do much to ameliorate the ills of society. One in six Texans lives below the poverty level. Texas consistently has some of the dirtiest air in the country, ranks 48th in public health expenditure and 45th in providing prenatal care for women.

No matter how attractive ideas of personal responsibility and charity may seem, they didn't work in the 19th century -- a time when workers had no rights, people regularly starved to death and health care was only for the well-off -- and there's no evidence to suggest they'll work now. Maybe if George W. had paid a little more attention in history class at Yale, he would have learned this. Knowledge is not elitist.

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