In sports, if a play works, expect it to be used again. And again. Why not? It's smart ball.
The same is true in politics. Say your political opponent is dumb and see that it sticks. George W. Bush was dumb. Forget Yale and Harvard and the MBA — and his being the only president to have earned one. A general and later a president named Grant was supposed to be none-too-bright, too. Just don't ask Robert E. Lee's opinion on the matter. Ike couldn't say anything, or even play golf, without being ridiculed by his supposed betters. LBJ was just a hick. Ronald Reagan was an amiable dunce, and one whose re-election would mean the end of the world. Literally. Or so said Dale Bumpers in 1984. That line went over big at Columbia University if nowhere else.
If you can't get away with dumb, try ugly. A prairie lawyer named Abraham Lincoln was just a buffoon and Harry Truman was the puppet of Boss Pendergast's machine in Kansas City. And all them Kennedys were too rich, and too Catholic, for their own good.
Which brings us to this year's presidential campaign. The morning line on Mitt Romney is that he's a wimp. Though it's not spelled out quite so explicitly. The latest cover of Newsweek -- yes, it's still around, but the print edition soon might not be -- shows a smiling Mitt Romney. The caption? "The Wimp Factor."
In case you didn't get it, the subtitle asks: Is he just too insecure to be president?
So, no, that wasn't a partisan attack. Newsweek's editors were just asking a friendly question, you see. Fair and balanced and all that. And that's what the media are supposed to do, right?
But it was all vaguely familiar.
The Wimp Factor. Where had we heard that before?
Oh, yes. The 1988 campaign.
There once was a vice president named George H.W. Bush who aimed to succeed his term-limited boss. That particular George Bush was running against someone named Michael Dukakis. It was a forgettable campaign all around, what with Joe Biden's plagiarizin', Bill Clinton's speechifyin' and Paul Simon's bow-tyin'. A merciful memory has obscured the details, but as best we recall, George Herbert Walker Bush won because: (1) he said the pledge of allegiance at every stop; (2) Michael Dukakis poked his head out of a tank; and (3) Mr. Bush looked healthy enough to ward off fears that Dan Quayle would actually become president.
Bush the Elder, who would soon enough become Bush 41, had to answer silly questions about The Wimp Factor. Why? Because the media asked them. Which media? Newsweek. How times haven't changed. Newsweek's cover showed an up-close shot of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush wearing his yellow slicker as he steered his boat. And the headline was almost the same: George Bush Fighting the 'Wimp Factor' Well, sure. The man only joined the Navy on his 18th birthday, became the youngest fighter pilot in the Navy at the time, got shot down over the Pacific, and then went on to fight for the duration. Some wimp. But he had to deal with the Wimp Factor because Newsweek said so.
Now Mitt Romney has to do the same. Because Newsweek says so. And here we thought standing headlines went out with paste-up.
It's said that newsmagazines — like Newsweek — are facing hard times. We don't wonder why. But who knew they'd resort to re-runs? That's so television.