It is an article of faith with millions of Americans, most of them on the left, that George W. Bush is stupid. Many reasonable people think his policies are ill-advised, but millions more insist Bush must be a moron because he sounds stupid.
The president’s tortured “Bushisms” are chronicled daily and have been collected in books. Two of the more notorious are “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family” and “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream.”
But something doesn’t compute. Fred Smith, the founder of Federal Express and a Yale pal of both Bush and John Kerry, says Bush is five times smarter than people think he is. Cynics deride what passes for scholarship at the Harvard Business School, but the course work for the two-year MBA isn’t easy. A grading curve forces a small number of students to fail, and Bush didn’t fail.
So why does Bush sound stupid? One doctor thinks he shows signs of “presenile dementia,” or an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
This summer, Joseph Price, a self-described “country doctor” in Carsonville, Mich., was reading a long article in The Atlantic about Bush’s speaking style. Author James Fallows alluded to Bush’s malapropisms and to speculation that Bush had a learning disorder or dyslexia. But those conditions generally manifest themselves in childhood. Furthermore, Fallows wrote, “through his forties Bush was perfectly articulate.”
Dr. Price’s children happened to have given him a daily tear-off calendar of “Bushisms” for Christmas. “They are horrible, but they are also diagnostic,” Price says. When he read that Bush had spoken clearly and performed well while debating Texas politician Ann Richards in 1994, Price thought: “My God, the only way you can explain that is by being Alzheimer’s.”
In a letter to be published in The Atlantic’s October issue, Price calls presenile dementia “a fairly typical Alzheimer’s situation that develops significantly earlier in life. . . . President Bush’s `mangled’ words are a demonstration of what physicians call `confabulation’ and are almost specific to the diagnosis of a true dementia.” He adds that Bush should be “started on drugs that offer the possibility of retarding the slow but inexorable course of the disease.”
Yes, I asked for a second opinion. University of Massachusetts neurology professor Dr. Daniel Pollen thinks it is bootless to speculate about Bush’s condition without a formal neuropsychological assessment. “I think it’s unfair to say somebody has or does not have a dementia as an analysis based on his public utterances,” says Pollen, who is not a Bush supporter. Noting that Bush spoke well in his debates with both Richards and Al Gore, Pollen adds that Bush’s “peak performances are not in the range I would consider for anybody to have Alzheimer’s disease in the near future.”
Suppose Price is right. What effect might his observation have on the 2004 election? Absolutely none. The White House isn’t going to start speculating about an incipient medical condition that might make the president look bad. When I forwarded Price’s comments to the White House, it sent me Bush’s 2001 and 2003 physical exams, which show normal neurological functions. “There is nothing to suggest that there has been any change from those reports,” says White House spokeswoman Erin Healy.
There is ample precedent for papering over presidents’ medical shortcomings. Stanford Medical School professor Herbert Abrams and others have argued that Ronald Reagan was incapacitated from the day he was shot in March of 1981 through the succeeding seven years of his presidency. In their 1988 book, “Landslide,” Jane Mayer and Doyle McManus report that one White House staffer considered Reagan’s condition so bad in 1987 that he suggested invoking the transfer-of-power provisions of the 25th Amendment. That idea went nowhere fast.
As for the Democrats, they have no incentive to medicalize a condition they so enjoy teeing off on: Bush’s seemingly goofy stupidity. Kerry suggests that Bush’s bicycle has training wheels; Kerry’s wife suggests that people who oppose her husband’s health schemes are idiots. The Democrats would rather feel superior to their opponents than beat them, and so far they are doing a very good job.