Last Friday E.J. Dionne wrote an excellent piece about George W. Bush being an “egghead.” No, it wasn’t a play on words; he wasn’t accusing Mr. Bush of having the inherent intelligence of a barnyard bird, but of possessing that politically toxic trait of intellectualism (toxic to the right, anyway).
His argument was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I gathered, but nevertheless a compelling twist on a partial truth of eggheadism. It’s true, as Mr. Dionne observed, that the Bush presidency has a “profound commitment to theoretical notions” -- the “What, me worry?” of Social Security privatization, the rose-pedaled path of Middle East democracy, and the Reaganomic fiscal nirvana that comes from more spending, fewer taxes.
Not to take Mr. Dionne’s rhetorical whimsy too seriously, but the rub came with his dependent clause: that Bush, in classic egghead style, embraces these “theoretical notions” while clutching a “relentless … commitment to pushing them regardless of the facts or the consequences.”
Oh yeah, no doubt he does that, but that isn’t eggheadism. It’s eggheadism’s opposite: muleheadism -- the blind stubbornness of simpleminded simplicity. It is, in fact, the curious phenomenon of anti-intellectual Goldwaterism of 1964.
Much like Bush, Barry Goldwater was inclined to advertise his limited intellectual achievements and even capacity. He was the common man’s politician with the common man’s disdain for lofty abstractions -- the demagogic candy of argumentum ad populum. Yet, thought Goldwater, in ignorance there was a certain profundity.
Speaking in 1964 at a campaign rally in Memphis, Tennessee, the presidential contender drew on the lifeblood of demagogic tradition when he said “a lot of my enemies call me simple. The big trouble with the so-called liberal today is that he doesn’t understand simplicity.” Problems are easily solved if only “we have the courage to face them. Those who don’t have that courage want complicated answers when they know in their hearts I’m right.” Sound familiar?
To kick-start a sputtering campaign, Goldwater grasped at the opportunistic politics of folksy, down-home cultural morality, an easy target in the turbulent midst of the 1960s. He was way ahead of Karl Rove and his boss. But unlike Rove’s boss, Goldwater was a reluctant moralist. He had spent his career as a quintessential Old Rightist bashing Bolsheviks and bureaucrats and believing fervently that piety was personal, not political. The 1964 holy grail of the White House changed all that -- though he loathed every minute of it.
He also came to regret every minute of it. Unwittingly he had ignited the morality-obsessed “New” Rightists of the following decade, and by 1981 Goldwater was lashing out, “If they disagree with you one bit, you’re a no-good S.O.B.” Looking back on his public career and assessing Washington’s climate of the mid-1990s, he lamented with characteristic brevity, “Perhaps I’m one of the reasons this place is so redneck.”
The comment was more than the stuff of extemporaneous quips that so typified Barry Goldwater. In his autobiography he complained with studied reflection that “the New Right stresses the politics of absolute moral right and wrong. And, of course, they are convinced of their absolute rightness.” His cause of complaint lay in the interests of both nation and party. “If either side insists on legislating morality in absolute terms, then the challenge to democratic society is too great. It’s simply unworkable.” And of partisan concern, “The great danger in the new conservative movement is that, instead of broadening its base, the movement may tear itself and the GOP apart.” He had awakened to consequences.
Further -- though without the slightest recognition that his contemporary thought might conflict with his famous oration on virtuous extremism a quarter-century before -- Goldwater condemned the “new” conservatism for preaching “little or no spirit of compromise.... Public business -- that’s all politics is -- is often making the best of a mixed bargain.... For a democracy to function, there has to be ... some room for compromise.” He had also awakened to complexity.
In short, Goldwater’s ’64 campaign was both anti-eggheadism at its finest and modern conservatism’s prototype, which is to say, muleheaded simplicity. But Goldwater grew out of it.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, shows no sign of developmental abilities. He’ll stick to simplicity like Tom DeLay to junkets -- “regardless,” as Mr. Dionne correctly observed, “of the facts or the consequences.”