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What’s wrong with Jose Seis-chelas?

7 October 2008

One of the deciding factors in United States Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson’s support of the 1913 coup against Francisco Madero — and the anarchic violence that resulted from that coup — was the administrative change in the United States that would take place on 21 March of that year.  At the time, that’s the day the new President would be sworn in.  Ambassador Wilson, of course, would be expected to hand in his resignation when President Woodrow Wilson took office.  Making the minor point that Woodrow Wilson, as well as outgoing president William Howard Taft, and Progressive Candidate Theodore Roosevelt were all intellectually capable and the tragedy can’t be blamed on sheer Presidential stupidity, I added this small footnote to my discussion of the Ten Tragic Days in Gods, Gauchupines and Gringos:

The candidates in the 1912 election were probably the most scholarly ever in U.S. history. Taft was a recognized legal scholar, Wilson a professional historian and third-party candidate, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, among his many other accomplishments, was a well-regarded popular writer on natural history as well as a naval historian.

It was unusual at the time to have a university education, and of course Roosevelt was known for many other things as well as his scholarship, but I don’t think voters then would have voted for a President who was “just like you”.  Nor would they have wanted to.

I’m not sure when it happened, but even when a candidate for President of the United States was of somewhat modest educational achievement (Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman), they always highlighted thier intellectual abilities.  Ike was only “dumb” compared to the witty Adiai Stevenson — and he was President of Colombia University, when he started his political career. Barry Goldwater in 1964 was a brilliant orator, but running uphill against a popular president who — though crude and devious — was never seen as an average Joe.  Besides, what Goldwater was saying was nuts.  Nixon, Carter and Clinton all let you know exactly how smart they were.  Their oppenents were intellegent, and sometimes witty (like Bob Dole), but none of them ran on being “an average Joe.”  Jerry Ford came off as kind of an oaf… and lost badly when he ran for President.  Ronald Reagan wasn’t any sort of intellectual, but made up for it by his soaring oratory and verbal flair.

George W. Bush did run against a smart guy, who let you know it … and did not capture the popular vote (or, some say, even the Electorial vote).  But, assuming Bush did win that 2000 election, it marked the first time in a century that a President ran on the “Average Joe” platform.  I’ve seen a theory (and forgot where I saw it), the Bush really isn’t as dumb as he acts… but studies his verbal gaffes for political purposes to make him appear less like the graduate of private schools and a Yale MBA, and more like a Bubba from Midland.

I compare that (like I do everything else, sooner or later) to Latin America in general, and Mexico in particular.  Right now, three Latin American Presidents (Bachelet of Chile, Colom of Guatemala and Vasquez of Uruguay) are medical doctors.  Ecuadorian President Correa and Mexico’s Felipe Calderon (and Haitian Prime Minister Michele Pierre-Louis) have advanced degrees in economics and experience in international finance.  Parguay’s President Lugo studied abroad in Rome… quite an accomplishment for a Paraguayan President.  Even relatively uneducated leaders, like Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez (who isn’t shy about anything) lets you know what books he’s read, and they aren’t things like “My Pet Goat”.

While we haven’t always had the best leaders in Mexico, we’ve generally had highly educated ones…. or historically at least, those acheived an education against the odds.  Another footnote from my book:

A surprising number of Mexican leaders have been teachers, raised by teachers, or orphans. Some, like Obregón have been all three. Besides Obregón, Juárez and Calles were orphans. All three, as well as Porfirio Díaz were schoolteachers at one time or another…and interim president de la Huerta became a dance teacher.

(I poke fun at Adolfo de la Huerta who was the figurehead leader of a coup in 1924, and had to flee to the United States, where the highly cultivated, intellectual banker and diplomat made a good living in the 1920s, running a dance school). Sure, because of the Revolution, and the conditions before the Revolution, there weren’t a lot of leaders with university degrees, but all made a point of pride in speaking as learned men, and all surrounded themselves with intellectuals. Pancho Villa joined the Revolution in large part because of his thirst for education, and to be educated was to be a patriot for most of the last century.

And say what you will about the PRI era, political leaders were drawn from academia and the professions. Lopez Portillo, like Obregón in the 1920s, saw their poetry as something to be celebrated, not dismissed. Even Carlos Salinas (who earned his PhD in economics) fancies himself a scholar, and writes long, unreadable books. Ernesto Zedillo took up an academic career after the Preisdency. No one in Mexico finds in remarkable that their presidents are remarkable.

Vicente Fox, elected the same year as George W. Bush (though there is no doubt that Fox really was elected), probably comes closest to running as an “average Jose”. He’s known as something of a naco (a redneck boob) — one of his famous gaffes was when he met a group of indigenous women who were part of an adult education program, he told an illiterate, “you’re probably better off not reading the newspapers”.). But Fox ran as a successful international businessman — not “Jose Seis-chelas”. In the 2006 election, Felipe Calderon certainly made sure voters knew he had TWO masters’ degrees (one from Mexico in economics, one from the United States in Public Administration); Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s campaign literature listed his several books (including his Masters’ Thesis).

Is it enough to be a maverick?

Is it enough to be a maverick?

Waymon Hudson, at the Bilirico Project, calls the present U.S. election, “the War on Intellectualism”. A Harvard-educated law professor is attacked for… horrors… being “professorial” while praise is heaped on a vice-presidential candidate with a journalism degree who can’t name the newspapers she reads. The head of her ticket glorifies in telling people he graduated near the bottom of his class… as if that were somehow an asset for the job

Is that screwed up, or are  the rest of the Americas behind the curve?

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