Here's how it is out there. A while back, I was at the self-checkout counter of a hardware store. A young man approached and offered to put my $20 purchase on his store gift card if I would give him $10 in cash. He said he had no money for gas.
I let him put my purchase on his card, but I gave him the full amount back. It was the second time in a week I'd been asked by a stranger for help in filling the tank. And this was before last week's prediction of a spike in gas prices to $4 a gallon.
So I am intrigued by the following exchange between President Bush and CBS News reporter Peter Maer at a news conference last week. "What is your advice," began Maer, "to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing ..."
The president stopped him. "Wait, what did you just say? You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline?"
Well, it wasn't him personally, explained Maer. "A number of analysts are predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline," he said.
The president was stunned. "Oh, yeah?" he said. "That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."
Headline news all over the country, but he hadn't heard it. And it's "interesting."
It will come as a surprise to no one that many, if not most, of our leaders are out of touch with the realities of everyday American life. One is reminded of the president's father pronouncing himself "amazed" back in '92 when he encountered a simple bar code scanner. And of candidate Bill Clinton scoring debate points because he knew the price of a gallon of milk. The Beltway crowd wondered why that mattered.
We are used to them being disconnected. But this particular disconnect is telling.
When it comes to our national leaders, we have historically required two incongruous things. We want them to be one of us, but we also want them to be better than us. That is, we want them to have gravitas and smarts and yet, be just one of the guys or girls. That's why every election season finds millionaires and Ivy League alumni hanging out at county fairs, pleading for votes while eating fried Oreos.
With George W. Bush, one of those requirements - gravitas, smarts - was taken off the table. He was, we were told, just an everyman, a simple, God-fearin' guy guided not by pointy-headed intellectuals with their pie charts and prognostications, but rather by his feelings, his instincts, his gut. So he didn't need, for instance, to consult a bunch of State Department eggheads about Vladimir Putin because he'd seen Putin's soul.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Bush has said he regards his presidency as a vindication of the C student. Even the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, as reliably conservative a newspaper as exists in the English language, once described him as having "no intellectual pretensions." It was meant as a compliment.
Bush is the perfect president for an era wherein the nation seems increasingly disdainful of intellectualism, where it turns out many of us are, indeed, not smarter than a fifth-grader, and educators and politicians can breezily dismiss the theory of evolution and not be hooted off the public stage.
George W. Bush, Average Joe, fits right in. Except that seven years, a useless war and a disastrous presidency later, the price of gas is headed for a ruinous record and President Average Joe hasn't even heard. Yeah, yeah, I know. Cut him some slack. It's not like he has to gas up the presidential limousine himself.
But I see nothing unfair in judging the president on the terms he himself has chosen. He may not have gravitas, the thinking went. He may not have piercing intelligence. But he's one of us.
Think again. Apparently, he's not even that.