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Beware of deriding Bush's intelligence

Memo to George W. Bush's opponents: Now is the time for a moratorium on calling the president of the United States stupid.

This is a call to enlightened self-interest, not censorship. Nobody wants to get in the way of Jay Leno, David Letterman, the Saturday Night Live crew and all others whose job it is to speak humor to power. If Bush keeps giving them material _ and even if he doesn't _ they should keep us laughing at him.

But it's a form of intellectual laziness for Bush's critics to see attacks on the president's intelligence as a sure way to work themselves back to power. On the contrary, such swipes shove popular expectations of the leader of the free world ever lower. Before long, we expect less of him than we do of the average city council member. How many times does Bush have to "exceed expectations" before this lesson is learned?

Casting Bush as a dummy also plays into his strategy of turning himself into a Texas common man. How can a Harvard M.B.A. who inherited large social, political and financial advantages _ and who wants to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans _ end up looking like a populist? When his opponents cast themselves as elitist mandarins looking down their noses at a guy who won 50-million votes, that's how.

Yes, there are moments when Bush's apparent lack of control over the material can create real problems. A recent example: the need for aides to explain, interpret and otherwise clean up after Bush spoke a few words about our nation's policy toward North Korea.

But if Bush is to be criticized here, it's not for being dumb but for being inattentive to the job he was elected to do. Bush's aides are making a cult of how he spends so much less time being briefed and talking about policy than former President Clinton did. Maybe our current president should hit the briefing books a little harder.

And then there is the matter of his grammar. Bush's ongoing war with syntax is troublesome _ less as a sign of brainlessness than as an indicator of indiscipline or indifference. On the other hand, many who read transcripts of their own words discover that they, too, are capable of producing horridly mangled sentences. (I speak here from experience.) And you have to admit that no president ever won or lost because of his skill at diagramming sentences. The Bush-as-dummy scenario is not sustainable when you consider who made a monkey of whom during the 2000 campaign.

Throughout the year, Bush was as clear as he could be about what he intended to do if elected. He promised the very big tax cut he's fighting for now, a partly privatized Social Security system, a voucherized Medicare program (though he didn't exactly call it that) and Supreme Court justices on the model of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. He was clearly and unequivocally a conservative.

But Bush was also skilled at reciting soothing words that separated him rhetorically from Newt Gingrich's revolution. As a result, he was regularly described in the media not as the conservative he is, but as a "moderate." The moderate tag made it all the easier for a certain prominent third party candidate for president to suggest that the differences between Bush and Al Gore were not of sufficient consequence to make voters worry much about which of them won. Who looks clever in this story? Who looks foolish? Hint: A candidate who pulls off what Bush did is no numskull.

Fortunately, most politicians are too cautious or too diplomatic to call the president a dummy. But Bush's rank-and-file opponents are falling into the same trap their forebears did when they confronted Ronald Reagan.

By writing off Bush's intelligence, his adversaries will lull themselves into ignoring how far-reaching his proposals on taxes, Social Security and Medicare really are. Bush, like Reagan before him, wants to make it much harder for those in the future who would use government to ease inequalities and solve social problems. The truly stupid thing would be to fail to take Bush and his plans seriously.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group