Columns » Ernest Dumas

Too late -- the idiot question

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Can a man who has read “The Stranger” by Albert Camus be an idiot? The White House would have you think not.

A chorus of conservatives has begun a chatter about President Bush’s intellectual worthiness to be the leader of the free world. Six years into his presidency is a good time to raise the question, isn’t it?

Liberals used to say that Bush was not curious or wise enough to run the country expertly, but now it’s old right-wing supporters like Joe Scarborough, the former Florida congressman and now TV gab host, and effete conservative columnists like George Will and William F. Buckley Jr. who obliquely or directly raise the doubt. Scarborough, who hosts the popular MSNBC show “Scarborough Country,” asked Republican guests on the show and in a column, “Is Bush an idiot?”

The question also seems to nag the electorate, which now vouchsafes little confidence in anything the administration does.

So when the president headed to his Crawford ranch for a vacation, his staff told the country that he took with him a copy of “The Stranger,” the classic artistic expression of existential philosophy. Tony Snow, the president’s press secretary, said Bush actually read it and that the two of them had a short discussion about existentialism. So you see, the president really is an intellectual.

It is entirely credible that Bush read “The Stranger,” if for no other reason than to say that he had the next time he spoke to a NASCAR crowd. It recalls a popular gag about the novel from the new comedy stock-car movie, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” which may have previewed in the White House.

If Snow announced that between brush clearings Bush had buried himself in another Frenchman’s tome, “Remembrance of Things Past,” it would not be so credible. But “The Stranger” is a tiny volume of simple declarative sentences that can be read at one short sitting. It is about an aimless young Frenchman who for no reason murders an Arab stranger on an Algiers beach and has an epiphany in his cell while awaiting the guillotine.

Bush will not be badgered by reporters to explain the point of “The Stranger.” Once before, when he went to Brussels in 2005 to patch things up with “Old Europe,” his speechwriter stuck in a pithy quote from Camus about freedom — out of context, naturally. The French ridiculed Bush for trying to exploit the icon of French intelligentsia and screwing it up.

It is one reason that Bush’s old friend Joe Scarborough has urged the White House for the good of the country to stop the president from having any more meetings with the press: his ignorance and “daily smackdowns with the English language.” (Although months behind, Slate magazine’s website “The Complete Bushisms: the President’s Accidental Wit and Wisdom” now lists more than 500 of the president’s nonsensical expressions, often with video.)

The country is not apt to be sufficiently impressed by Bush’s embrace of Albert Camus, even if he understood and liked what he read, to give him credence again. People are on to him, and whether he was directly instrumental or not he is the surrogate for every screw-up, from the Middle East wars to Katrina to the endless bureaucratic snafus to the mind-numbing economic miscalculations.

Scarborough, the brainy right-winger who once saw Bush as salvation, now asks, “Is George Bush’s mental weakness damaging America’s credibility at home and abroad?”

“For the past six years,” he wrote, “George W. Bush has been the target of ridicule from liberal circles. But now, instead of laughing at Democrats’ ill-directed arrogance, Republicans are quietly joining the left in questioning the President’s intellectual prowess. The biggest knock on Bush’s brain is his lack of intellectual curiosity. Former administration officials still close to the White House will tell you Mr. Bush detests dissent, embraces a narrow world view and is intellectually incurious.”

He is right about all of that, including a worldview that takes no account of history, of what has consistently failed or what every thoughtful expert on a region thinks might work. Now we learn that Israel’s disastrous foray into Lebanon was as much Bush’s idea as Ehud Olmert’s. Meeting at the White House a few weeks before the invasion, Bush encouraged Olmert to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon. Afterward, the White House let the Israeli government know that it would like Israel to attack Syria, too. Olmert’s government thought they were nuts.

But all of it has produced not merely embarrassment and a loss of credibility for the country. The United States has lost its historic role as an honest broker in the Middle East. It cannot hope to facilitate peace there again, as Carter, Reagan and Clinton did.

Since he has twice steeped himself in Albert Camus, Bush may want to dig further. Camus had some advice.

“When a war breaks out,” he wrote, “people say: ‘It’s too stupid, it can’t last long.’ But though a war may be ‘too stupid,’ that doesn’t prevent its lasting.”

Or this:

“Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.”

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