The Smart Guy


When I was a boy, I thought Isaac Asimov would be the ideal president. Not only was he a great science fiction writer, but he was really smart.

At the time, it seemed obvious to me that intelligence was the most important qualification for "running the country." To judge by all the snide remarks about George W. Bush's malapropisms, grammatical errors, and lack of interest in books, it's a view shared by many journalists who shudder at the thought of another dumb Republican in the White House.

If we went by IQ alone, Al Gore surely would be preferable to Bush. His SAT scores were better, he's interested in science, and he speaks standard English without obvious difficulty. He not only reads books but writes them too.

On the other hand, it was Isaac Asimov's books, the initial source of my attraction to him, that ultimately convinced me that he might not be such a good president after all. In particular, the premise of his award-winning Foundation series, which I loved when I was 11, began to trouble me as I got older.

These books chronicle the implementation of a grand plan developed by the "psychohistorian" Hari Seldon, who has developed techniques for predicting and shaping the future of humanity. The story suggests that if you have enough data and a big enough computer, you can confidently say not only what will happen but what ought to happen. And if you're smart enough, you can make history unfold the way you've decided it should.

If that was Asimov's attitude, it's probably for the best that he never made it to the White House. Political power and technocratic hubris are a dangerous combination.

Which brings us back to Al Gore. You don't have to read between the lines to figure out his view of what smart people can accomplish if they're given the power they deserve. It's spelled out pretty clearly in his 1992 tome Earth in the Balance, conveniently reissued this year by Houghton Mifflin.

The first thing Gore wants you to know is that we are experiencing a "crisis." The word appears on just about every page of the book, sometimes more than once. There's the "global environmental crisis," "the growing crisis," and (my personal favorite) "this ungodly crisis."

Gore has never heard of an environmental threat that wasn't as bad as claimed or that didn't need to be dealt with immediately. He dismisses skeptics as corporate collaborators, addicts in denial, and Neville Chamberlains.

"The time for delay is over," he writes. "A choice to 'do nothing' in response to the mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate the reckless environmental destruction that is creating the catastrophe at hand."

No one would accuse Gore of wanting to do nothing. He is intent on "reinventing and finally healing the relationship between civilization and the earth."

In case you thought that would be easy, Gore stresses that we must "make the effort to save the global environment the central organizing principle of our civilization….Minor shifts in policy, marginal adjustments in ongoing programs, moderate improvements in laws and regulations, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change–these are all forms of appeasement, designed to satisfy the public's desire to believe that sacrifice, struggle, and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary."

Gore is a little hazy on exactly what this "wrenching transformation" will entail, but some of his preferences are clear. He wants us to stop driving cars, stop buying things we don't really need, stop throwing so much stuff away, stop living in suburbs, and stop having so many children.

Gore also calls for "a truly global, comprehensive, and strategic approach to the energy problem" (which should satisfy the Republicans who've been complaining that the Clinton administration has no energy policy). And he suggests that new technologies should not be introduced until all their "pros and cons" have been carefully weighed.

Had Gore been in charge, for instance, automobiles would never have been allowed on the market, since they pose "a mortal threat to the security of every nation." But he's hopeful that "a coordinated global program" could "accomplish the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five-year period."

If this is the sort of thing smart people come up with, I prefer a president who's not too bright.