Since when did intellect and education become bad things in election campaigns?

Kevin Horrigan
St. Louis Post Dispatch

As a card-carrying member of the media elite, it’s hard for me to say something nice about Newt Gingrich. But here it is: He doesn’t wear blue jeans in public.

Compare this to the leaders in the GOP presidential field, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, both of whom regularly pander to the regular-guy lobby by wearing geezer jeans to campaign events. To succeed in the Republican primaries these days, you have to be seen as a regular guy, or possibly a regular gal.

Gingrich, who has a Ph.D. and who has authored or co-authored 21 books, clearly does not see himself as a regular guy. His biographer wrote that even as a graduate student at Tulane in 1968, Newt wore a jacket and tie to class. It’s like the old Mort Sahl line about Richard Nixon: “He was born in a log cabin in Whittier, Calif., wearing a blue suit.”

Would-be presidents shouldn’t wear blue jeans or show up at NASCAR races unless they know what a restrictor plate is or, as Barack Obama learned to his regret in 2008, go bowling unless they regularly bowl. Their campaigns shouldn’t issue statements like Santorum’s did last month:

“Rick knows firsthand what it means to run the carpool, pick up the kids from practice, help with homework and drop them off at their friends’ houses, all while trying to get to work on time or home for dinner with the family.”

Like this has anything to do with his ability to lead the free world.

The last thing any presidential candidate wants to be considered is an “elitist,” so that’s what they call each other. Santorum calls Obama a “snob” because he wants every kid to go to college. (Actually he doesn’t, but why let facts stand in the way?)

Gingrich says Romney belongs to the “Wall Street elite.” Romney says Gingrich and Santorum were part of the Washington elite. For many Republican primary voters, the only thing worse than a regular elite is an intellectual elite or a media elite or especially a liberal intellectual media elite.

“I don’t come from the elite,” Santorum told a Feb. 25 rally in Troy, Mich. “I worked my way to the success that I have and I’m proud of it. Elites come up with phony ideologies and phony ideas to rob you of your freedom.”

This would include the phony ideologies and ideas of people like the Founding Fathers, the elite of their day. Was there ever an American as elitist as Thomas Jefferson, the smartest man in every room, a sociophobe intellectual who imported books and wine by the case from France? Jefferson revered the common man, but only from a distance.

Reading history will make you sound like an elitist, but that’s the risk you take.

When Sarah Palin emerged from the obscurity of Wasilla, Alaska, in 2008 to become the Republican vice-presidential candidate, her appeal was immediate: She was a hockey mom! She had five kids! She could have been our next-door neighbor!

Should the fact that someone reminds you of your next-door neighbor persuade you to vote for him? More to the point, does the fact that a guy reads books and deals in ideas disqualify him?

For many Americans, it does. Anti-intellectualism has been a consistent theme throughout American history. The political scientist Richard Hofstadter won a Pulitzer Prize for “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.”

This was in 1964, and Hofstadter was writing about the 1950s, in the wake of McCarthyism and Adlai Stevenson’s “egghead” campaign. Hofstadter noted “hostility to intellectuals expressed on the far right wing, a categorical and folkish dislike of the educated classes and of anything respectable, established, pedigreed or cultivated.”

Now it’s back. The most prominent American conservative is not the erudite William F. Buckley but the seething Rush Limbaugh.

Maybe blue jeans aren’t a fair test, but Romney and Santorum, each of whom has three college degrees, are playing to the cheap seats. Newt’s ego won’t let him do that, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, an obstetrician, just flat doesn’t care. If ideas and knowledge are elitist, if you have to pretend to be ignorant to be elected president, then the country is in more trouble that we thought it was.

American students lag far behind the rest of the world in science, math and other subjects. Newsweek last year gave 1,000 Americans the test that immigrants must pass before they are granted citizenship. Three in 10 couldn’t name the vice president. Seventy-three percent didn’t know what the Cold War had been about. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” Jefferson wrote, “it expects what never was and never will be.” But then again, he was an elitist.

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