Wednesday, September 16, 2015

George W. Bush, I feel your pain

An amusing article in Monday’s NYT asks: “When did Jeb Bush become the smarter brother?” It quotes “[e]xperts on the Bush family [as] say[ing that] it’s an old idea, but [that] it may not be correct.”

To which, these days, one is sarcastically inclined to add: “Yuh think?”

The explanation that these experts offer for the long-time family myth is as follows: George W. was far more socially skilled than Jeb, as well as being more of a wild child when he was growing up:

“Thus, when the family considered the brothers’ futures, ‘it wasn’t that Jeb was oozing an arching intellect or compelling profundity as he grew up. It was just that, in juxtaposition with his more careening brother George Walker Bush — the one who drank, who ran into problems with the police, whose fraternity was accused of hazing and branding pledges — Jeb appeared more stable.’”

Now, let’s not mythologize George W. too much. I still believe that he was an absolutely terrible president, and that one reason for what I regard as his many failures is that he was extremely anti-intellectual and hostile to both knowledge and reasoning, not to mention averse to reading policy briefs of more than a page. But while these are serious defects, they are ones that an intelligent person – and clearly he was, at the least, capable of being tactically and personally shrewd – can have.  Not just for reasons of temperament, but perhaps all the more so if, in his tight family as he grew up, people were always letting him know that they thought his kid brother was smarter than him.

But it is amusing how, in Jeb’s case, what apparently were merely defects (lack of social skill) or intelligence-neutral temperamental differences (being less energetic and volatile) led to the assumption that he must be smart.

Although my family and family history are quite different from those of the Bush boys, I must say, I can feel George W.’s pain (especially now that he has been out of office for so long).  My family, perhaps like the Bushes’ despite the radical differences between an early-twentieth century immigrant Jewish family and one long ensconced within the New England Yankee elite, greatly valued what it deemed to be evidence of intelligence and seriousness.  It also highly valued the arts – perhaps unlike the Bush family, despite George W.’s recent embrace of painting – to the extent that I like to say: If Bill Gates and the third violinist in the Philharmonic Orchestra had been brothers, people in my extended family grouping would have thought: “It’s a shame that Bill didn’t turn out as well as his brother.”  But I digress.

How do people judge if you’re “smart” when you’re a kid, in a family that intensely values this attribute?  Partly through direct evidence, such as conversational acuity, or what you can tell people you are reading, or grades.  But also partly through negative or indirect evidence that gets interpreted based on broader stereotypes.  I always was quite aware, for example, that any level of proficiency, or at least interest, that I might have in sports potentially counted against me, especially among relatives outside my immediate family.

Now that the NYT has actually reported, based on insiders’ first-hand testimony, that Jeb’s reputation as the “smart” one reflected his deficits, not his accomplishments, perhaps we can hope for an end to idiotic and lazy reporting elsewhere in the paper about Jeb’s “cerebral” debate style and “wonky” inclinations. This is, after all, a man who never heard of Chiang Kai Shek (a very famous person when he was growing up, even leaving aside who his father was), and who is apparently unaware that the Social Security retirement age is no longer 65, due to legislation that passed in 1983 (!).

Nah, an end to lazy reporting based on stereotypes is probably too much too hope for.

But in the meantime, paint on, George W. And if you still feel any rivalry with your brother, perhaps (whether you will admit it to yourself or not) you are not feeling entirely disappointed by his recent struggles.

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