Monday, September 23, 2013

If this is the smartest guy in the room, I'd like a different room.

Does this look at all familiar?

I must, by now, have a different definition of "smart."

In fact, I'm sure I do.

The context is this trip down memory lane by Josh Marshall, where everybody who knew Ted Cruz in school agrees on two things, in this order:  1)  World class asshole; 2) really smart.

I don't see it.  Well, the first part I certainly do; but not the last part.

Cruz models himself on his father; that much to me is clear.  His father is an evangelist of the type I grew up with, around, and know inside out.  The variation is that Cruz the elder couples his evangelical fervor with a fierce anti-Castro anti-communism that passed its sell-date decades ago.  Evangelist preachers are not universally a stupid person's idea of a smart person, as Newt Gingrich has been described.  They are generally glib, quick-talking (for Southerners, anyway), and thoroughly convinced of their own righteousness.  Think Burt Lancaster's Elmer Gantry without the self-awareness.  It is clear to me, having watched Cruz off and on this summer as he makes sure he stays in the limelight (no wonder John McCain can't stand him) that Cruz just wants to be a chip off the old block.

But is he smart?

I've met a lot of "smart" people in my time.  I know a lot of "smart" people.  Less and less am I impressed with someone who can get through academia and appear "smart" while doing it, usually because they seem to do it with such ease.  "Smart" in movies usually means somebody with a head stuffed with trivial information that they spout like an encyclopedia (by the way, nobody who really is smart thinks a comparison to an encyclopedia is a compliment.  An encyclopedia can be a good source of information (depends on who's writing and compiling it), but it is information only of the most general sort.).  I've been in and through academia long enough to know that most people who go there or even wind up there aren't necessarily "smart."

My example from the extremes is a student I met in graduate school.  I remember him as a human tape recorder.  We associate eidetic memory with visual information, like reading.  He had the equivalent, but he took in information aurally.  Just as an eidetic memory can disguise knowledge for a reader, who can recall pages of words without really knowing what they meant, he could repeat, almost verbatim, anything said in class (and in graduate seminars, a LOT is said).  What he couldn't do was understand it.

Probably to non-grad students, or those outside our school, he sounded "smart."  But he wasn't; not at all.  Neither, of course, could he be failed, since he wasn't saying anything wrong.  He just wasn't showing any deep understanding.

More and more I connect the approval of "smart" with depth of understanding; I don't connect it with eloquence, glibness, or a head stuffed with trivia and information.  If I want information I can get it from books or the computer I'm typing on; what do to with that information, is what matters.

Ted Cruz has not shown me that he knows what to do with information.

For one thing, as Marshall reports, Cruz was a committed ideologue when he entered Princeton, and he's never let any information dissuade him from his views.  Maybe I'm leaning too close to wisdom here, but to me a "smart" person considers alternative views, and rejects them only after giving them due and thorough consideration, after understanding them.  The risk of that kind of inquiry is you might not reject those views; you might accept them in place of your own.  I'm not sure Ted Cruz has ever done that.

I'd almost bet money he hasn't, as a matter of fact.

But Cruz was on the Princeton debate team, and he made it through Harvard Law!  So?  I knew a lawyer who was also "smart;" and an asshole.  Everybody in town knew he was an asshole, and the only lawyer I know he ever respected, was the one I'd worked for before law school.  That man was smart; and kind.  He was the opposite of an asshole (a personality type many a trial lawyer specializes in).  This man was "smart" because he understood people, he understood the law, and he understood the place of data in argument:  use it when you need it, but if you can reason, you don't really need to carry much data around with you.  Oh, and if you're really smart, you really don't need to be an asshole.

That's simplifying greatly, and turning "smart" into a personality trait; but I don't mean that.  I mean "smart" is too quickly assessed for people who have good memories and glib tongues, traits that are handy in what Marshall calls the "somewhat ridiculous world of college debate."  Debate itself is a world apart, where comments like Stephen Fry's can seem "bone-crushing," until you take away the verbal talents of the speaker and review just what was being said by going outside the debate hall.  I mean, it may be effective in the forum, but take it out into the agora and it evaporates in the sunlight, as evanescent as a soap bubble.  So is Cruz smart because he's glib?

My example of a "smart" person would be Barack Obama,  You can listen to Obama speak, or answer questions to a journalist, or make wisecracks to an audience, and know the man is very intelligent.  He's thoughtful.  He considers matters.  Too deeply, some have complained; not deeply enough, others have cried.  No matter; the man is clearly one of the smartest people to occupy the White House since Thomas Jefferson.  Does Ted Cruz strike you as nearly so thoughtful, nearly so insightful?

I didn't think so.

Nor do I have any reason to think that is a pose.  Is Ted Cruz intelligent?  Undoubtedly.  But is he "smart"?  No, I don't think so.  I reserve that term for people of better character and greater humility; for people closer to "wisdom" than just to "intelligence."  "Smart" means something other than knowledgeable or quick-witted or glib in your speech; it certainly means more than what education you have.  "Smart" has as much to do with how you use your mental abilities as it does with what abilities you have or develop.

Ted Cruz may not be a fool; not in the sense that he has the capacity to understand; but he fails repeatedly to understand anything not deemed of immediate importance to Ted Cruz.  Just now, for example, he seems set on filibustering a bill that does what he wants it to do, just because that bill won't pass the Senate.  His filibuster won't make it pass, but he's vowed to fight for passage by keeping any bill from passing, anyway.  So here's where he stands right now:

Ted Cruz's plan doesn't make much sense on its face. He says he wants to filibuster the House-passed government spending bill that defunds Obamacare. Why would he want to block a bill that accomplishes his dream?

The apparent contradiction underlines the politically difficult position that Cruz has put his caucus in. How do you explain to your constituents that you voted to block a bill that would have defunded the health care law that they so deeply revile? Explaining the arcane rules of the Senate isn't the easiest political message, though Cruz has earned the backing of big conservative groups to fortify his position.

But the fact that he's in this position at all probably isn't a good sign. "Rule No. 1 in communications is if you are explaining, you are losing," a senior Senate GOP aide told TPM.
Thanks to Senate Rule 22, it's not clear he can ever mount a filibuster anyway.  Unless all GOP Senators vote against cloture (which would mean voting to block a bill you support; this would be before Reid strips out the anti-Obamacare language), all votes on the CR will require a simply majority for passage.  So what is Cruz's plan? Blame the Democrats for not closing down the government?  Blame them for allowing Obamacare to continue to take effect?

Let me make the confusion a little clearer:  John Cornyn says he supports the House CR and will vote against a bill that funds Obamacare.  However:

If you dig into that sentence, you see the difficulty of the Senate GOP's position.

Cornyn says he supports the House bill, which Cruz says he will block. So Cornyn could actually vote for cloture -- against the wishes of Cruz, Heritage, etc. -- because he supports the House bill and wants it to come to the floor. That would be in line with the tweet above.

But then when Reid strips the defund language from the bill, he could vote against its final passage. With both votes, Cornyn is voting for defunding Obamacare, yet defying Cruz. FreedomWorks might score for him; Heritage would score against him.

Confused yet? That's the position that the Senate GOP finds itself in.
Yes:  unless Reid suspends Rule 22, Ted Cruz will have no choice but to demand the entire Senate GOP join him in holding their breath until their faces turn blue; or just filibustering the bill they actually support, because that's the only way to keep Reid from bringing any CR to the Senate floor for a vote.  Does this make sense to you?

Ted Cruz is the smart guy in the room?  And wasn't that how they described the guys who ran Enron? Into the ground?

N.B.  Word comes that Cruz has already lost, as Reid objected to unanimous consent to pass the House CR, and to Cruz's demand that all votes on the CR meet the 60 vote threshold.   Now we'll see if his arrogance has won him any friends in the Senate.


  1. I hate when that happens.

  2. I found out later that it had been my computer and not your comment system. Essentially what I wanted to say was that I've seen lots of smart people who the world would have been better off without but I've never known a good one the world would be better off without. I started making a list of the first once, it was quite long.

    But I agree with you about Cruz and he is neither smart nor is he good. He's entirely amoral and ambitious and, in our unmoralized culture, amorality, ambition and the ability to get what you want are what cynically passes for intelligence. I suspect in an earlier times would have seen it somewhat clearer, though the political class has often been dominated by amoral cynics of that kind.

    I hope Cruz will expose himself as too awful to be elected to any higher office than the one he holds now and that he'll eventually lose but I saw Nixon elected president twice against far better people - I don't think there has been a better man than George McGovern who has been the nominee of a major party in my lifetime and the corporate media destroyed him.

  3. Cruz doesn't have the political skills of Nixon. I was thinking about his comments on why he should win this fight, and his political analysis is pathetic. Obama should give in because he did on Syria (????), and he did on gun control (somebody should tell Obama, since he spoke again on gun control at the Navy Yard). Obama won on Syria (even if he stumbled into it) and the Senate failed on gun control. And Cruz seems to think some kind of mindless obstinance will win him glory.

    The man is a fool.

    I'm wondering if he'll be content to return to Texas. I'm of the school that thinks Cruz didn't want to be Senator, only Texas AG. But he loves the limelight, and he won't get the speaking engagements he gets now if he's just a Texas govt official. As a Senator he's completely useless, but that's never been a problem for re-election to the Senate, from Texas or almost anywhere else.

    But POTUS? Not unless his opponent is Al Gore.....

  4. I hope you're right, though I could imagine the kind of cynical but able use of him as a figurehead like they did with Reagan and Bush II. Cruz is totally amoral.

  5. Cruz has embraced the ghost of Jesse Helms in a bear hug.

    Nixon knew enough to keep his racism hidden.

    Cruz will never go higher than the U.S. Senator from Texas. In elective office, anyway.

    IMHO, of course.