Richard Cohen


Washington Post, October 6, 1992

The story goes that when George Smathers beat Claude Pepper in Florida's 1950 Democratic senatorial primary, he did so in Dart by accusing his opponent of being the brother of a "thespian" who had "matriculated" while in college. When I called Smathers to ask about the story much a part of American political lore that its truth is taken for granted--his secretary said he could not be reached. I guess the old thespian was out matriculating.

This brings us to George Bush, who is attempting to do a Smathers. On a number of occasions recently Bush has linked Bill Clinton with, of all places, Oxford the English university situated in the city of the same name. It's the place where Rhodes Scholars go for graduate study. He suggests that by living there, Clinton was tainted by something foreign, possibly something effete and, much worse, something intellectual as well. This Clinton is to be watched.

At one event, Bush referred to Clinton's Oxford cronies" and said they would visit "misery on Main Street America." On another occasion, Bush pointed to the "chicken" the Clinton camp had sent to dog the Bush campaign (Can a chicken dog?) and said,"There he is, the chicken. I'm not sure if that chicken is from Oxford England, or maybe he's the one that dumps that fecal coliform bacteria into the Arkansas River." And just recently, Bush said he would be up against an Oxford debater when he and Clinton finally faced off. Apparently, at Yale Bush took no academic courses.

One is tempted to say that these are not the musings of a sane man. But upon reflection they are no more inane than Bush's New Hampshire exclamation, "Don't cry for me Argentina" or his message for that slate: "Message, I care." What they are, really, are the proclamations of a man who has utter contempt for the people he seeks to lead for another four years. The references to Oxford are, of course, an appeal to provincialism and xenophobia, but foremost they are additional examples of Bush's arrogance: his tendency to see his fellow Americans as either children or staff to whom you occasionally lie, for their own good, of course. Bush first exhibited his contempt for the average American's intelligence during the 1988 campaign. Possibly having noticed that Ronald Reagan was believed even when he was at his most preposterous, Bush adopted the same tactic--but without, it has to be said, any of Reagan's charm or beguiling naivete. For instance, Bush blasted Michael Dukakis for being a creature of Harvard, while he himself was prepar- ing to stock his Cabinet with people from that very university. And it was back then, of course, that he made his "read my lips" pledge. He didn't really mean a word of it.

Later, as president, Bush showed that the campaign was no fluke. In his very first nationally televised speech from the Oval Office, he held up a bag of crack cocaine and said--by way of showing how brazen and common drug- trafficking had become--that it had been seized across the street from the White House. It had--but only because the drug dealer had been lured there by Drug Enforcement Administration agents so that Bush could include the arrest in his speech. It was the only cocaine arrest up to that time in Lafayette Park. When Bush was asked about the sham, he did a so's your mother. Whose side are you on, he asked the press--the drug dealer's!?

A kind of chilling disdain for the truth, an arrogant and deadly contempt for the intelligence of others, infects the politics of George Bush. It enables him to air an anti-Clinton television spot that is not just a stretch, not just good ol' political hot air but a stupefying falsification--complete with seem ingly precise estimates of all-but-certain Clinton tax increases ($1,088 for a steamfitter) that are sheer inventions. It permitted him to promote a bogus figure for the number of times taxes had been raised in Arkansas and to flit from issue to issue in this campaign hoping that one of them will strike a chord in the electorate. He is all advertising and no product.

The references to Clinton's time in England as a Rhodes Scholar--a distinct honor, by the way--make you want to gag. Had they been uttered; with even a hint of wit--as was Dan Quayle's reference to himself as a public school boy who would be at a disadvantage debating Al Gore--then maybe we could all laugh at what is, after all, the glorious nonsense of politics.

But it is the earnest seriousness of Bush that leads us to conclude that he takes us for fools. He emulates Smathers, but it is Lincoln he should heed. Come November, Bush will find you really cannot fool all of the people all all the time.

1997 Inaugural | Park Closures | Pennsylvania Ave. Closure
Peace Park | Proposition One
Legal Overview | Regulations