Funny story: back when Adlai Stevenson was running to be president, a woman came up to the Democratic nominee.
“Every thinking person will be voting for you,” she gushed. Stevenson, who would go on to an impressive loss against Dwight Eisenhower, was unfazed. “Madam,” he said, “that is not enough. I need a majority.”
It’s an anecdote worth remembering. In politics, as is well-known, intelligence and power are often mutually inconsistent concepts. Case in point: Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
It is not enough to say that Ford never seems to be troubled by deep thoughts. It’s even more than that: Mayor Crackhead positively revels in the fact that he belongs in the same shed where the other tools are kept. The ones that aren’t, you know, sharp.
If the pointy-headed downtown intellectuals are against him, Ford couldn’t be happier. “I side with the poor people,” wheezes Rob, the son of a multi-millionaire.
Ronald Reagan used to be called dumb, too, but he did alright, didn’t he? Handily won the presidency twice, and he remains revered by conservatives as the greatest-ever communicator.
Back in the early Eighties, before airports would be named after them, Pierre Trudeau and Ronald Reagan privately got along well enough. Trudeau regarded Reagan as gracious, and often remarked to his circle that the US president was a genuinely kind and pleasant man.
To his critics, however, Reagan was not bright. Then and now, they saw Reagan as a fool. A dummy.
Watching Pierre Trudeau’s eldest son give a convention speech on Saturday, I thought – as I often do – about Ronald Reagan. Their respective ideologies could not be more dissimilar, of course. But in other respects, Reagan and the younger Trudeau sometimes seem cut from the same cloth.
Reagan was a Hollywood actor; Trudeau was a drama teacher. Like Reagan, Trudeau has a fondness for the dramatic and (occasionally) melodramatic. Too much flair, too much theatre, can be dangerous in politics. It can leave voters wondering about your authenticity.
But for both Reagan and Trudeau, the dramatic flourishes attracts many more voters than it repels.
The Republican leader and the Liberal leader have an affinity for a slightly hokey style of politics, too, one that always favours pictures to the written word. It’s a style that is steeped in the power of symbolism.
So, there is Reagan joking with his doctors – as John Wayne would – after he is shot by a would-be assassin. There is Trudeau, pummeling Patrick Brazeau in the boxing ring, and shrugging his Wayne-like assessment afterwards: “He didn’t know that I could take it and keep going.”
Mostly, however, Reagan and Trudeau share this: they do not profess to be intellectuals. Trudeau has gone out of his way to suggest that he isn’t one.
Perhaps recalling what happens when his party has recently sought out an intellectual as a leader – eg., Dion, Ignatieff – Trudeau, like Reagan, seems amused that he is regularly dismissed as an intellectual lightweight.
The bad news, for the likes of Reagan and Trudeau, is regularly being mocked for being a bit dim-witted.
The good news, of course, is being underestimated by one’s opponents. ‘Cause it’s the ones doing the underestimating who usually end up doing this: