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I want to make one thing clear from the very beginning: I do not think that Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza and the current darling of the right, is an ignoramus.
He's got a B.A. in mathematics and a master's in computer science. He worked as a ballistics analyst for the U.S. Navy before his highly successful business career. So no, I do not think Mr. Cain is an ignorant man.
I think that he just pretends to be.
First there was his famous pronouncement to a conservative organization in Iowa that he wouldn't sign any legislation longer than three pages.
As reporter Marie Diamond pointed out at the time, this would have stopped him from signing such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act, the PATRIOT Act, and the Bush tax cuts.
I'm sure Mr. Cain has, as a matter of course, read and signed off on hundreds if not thousands of business memos and contracts far longer than three pages. So when he acts as if he has the attention span of a third-grader, he's got to be pretending.
Most recently, Mr. Cain not only pronounced his ignorance of world affairs, he did so defiantly. He was asked by an interviewer on the Christian Broadcast Network if he was ready for the "gotcha" questions that bad old liberal media were sure to throw at him. Questions like, "Who's the president of Uzbekistan?"
Cain responded, "When they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, I'm going to say, 'You know, I don't know. Do you know?' And then I'm going to say how's that going to create one job?" He went on to say that it wasn't critical to know "the head of some of these small insignificant states around the world."
For the record, the current president of Uzbekistan is a guy named Islam Karimov, and knowing who he is is really kind of important, since this "small insignificant state" borders Afghanistan, where I assume Mr. Cain knows we have troops on the ground. We had an air base there until 2005, and the country lies across a potentially significant supply route for our troops if things continue to get uglier with Pakistan.
So why would someone who wants to be the president of the United States pretend not only to be ignorant of a potential player in a regional hotspot, but also to be proud of that ignorance?
The answer is simple: because of the audience he's playing to. There is a distressingly large group of voters who act as if knowledge and expertise are suspect and simple-mindedness is something to be proud of.
It's a longstanding tradition in this country. From Jimmy Stewart's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" to "The Beverly Hillbillies" to Tom Hanks' "Forrest Gump," our national mythology is filled with the unschooled, the naive or the mentally challenged, who -prevail over the wicked and crafty "smart" people through their sheer goodness and -decency, without ever, it seems, getting any smarter or well informed.
Well, Mr. Smith, Jed Clampett and Forrest Gump are great characters, but they're just that. Characters. They're fiction, written to fulfill our yearning for simple answers in a complicated world.
But in the real world, the elevation of ignorance leads to bizarre aberrations like an unlicensed and uneducated plumber from Ohio being held up by the right as some kind of oracle, even as he says one silly thing after another. The elevation of ignorance leads to smart people playing dumb, like an otherwise bright girl pretending to be an airhead because she thinks boys won't like her if she's too brainy. Or like Herman Cain.
Cain's bumper-sticker homilies like "I'm not going to sign a bill longer than three pages," his alleged contempt for knowledge of foreign affairs, and his tax plan that every economist agrees won't raise enough money to run the country (but it sure is simple!) are pandering, pure and simple. They're attempts to play to the constituency I've begin calling the Forrest Gump Republicans.
But Forrest Gump isn't going to lead us out of the mess we're in. And neither is playing at being an ignoramus to get that rube vote. That's not leadership. You lead by encouraging people to act a little smarter, not by trying to pander and fool them that you're as dumb as they are.