PBS Humorist Blames Reagan For Increased American Ignorance

News & Politics

Political humorist and satirist Andy Borowitz joined Walter Isaacson on Friday’s Amanpour and Company on PBS to discuss his new book Profiles in Ignorance which purports to report on the country’s growing anti-intellectualism. However, Borowitz’s segment proves the book is actually just an anti-Republican screed as he blames the problem on Ronald Reagan and defends Democrats against similar charges.

Isaacson kicked things off by asking Borowitz to explain himself, “But you sort of start the contemporary age of it with Ronald Reagan’s election as governor of California. And you call it, sort of, the stage of ridicule. Explain that to me.”

Borowitz claimed that “there are the three stages of ignorance, as I defined them, which are ridicule, acceptance, and celebration. And Ronald Reagan really kicked off the ridicule phase.”

After declaring that Reagan was simply “great on TV,” Isaacson started to ever-so-slightly push back, “Yeah, you say he didn’t know anything. But let me just ask you, it seems like an odd question, who was smarter, Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter?”

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Almost insulted that Isaacson would ask such a question, Borowitz replied, “Oh, clearly, Jimmy Carter. And, you know, smart is an interesting adjective. I’m not qualified as a neurologist to know much — how much brain capacity somebody has. I’m really not qualified in that regard. But one thing I think that’s really important is how much intellectual curiosity you have. And that’s usually reflected in how much you read. And people like Jimmy Carter read a ton. Harry Truman read a ton. Ronald Reagan didn’t open a single book in college.”

It was clear, even without Borowitz’s reminder, that he isn’t a neurologist, and putting aside the fact that Reagan was actually very well read, reading books by itself doesn’t make you smart. For example, if you read Borowitz’s book, you will come out dumber than you went in, as he soon proved.

In response to Isaacson claiming that Reagan was “a very successful president in terms of getting done what he wanted to get done” and Carter “was remarkably unsuccessful,” Borowitz blamed Reagan for AIDS and homelessness:

Well, it depends on how you define success really, I guess. I don’t regard Ronald Reagan as a successful president. I think he was successful in getting elected. I think he was very successful in getting his agenda through. But what that agenda was, unfortunately, was very redolent of his own ignorance. He let the AIDS crisis spiral out of control because he was very unaware of what AIDS was or what it meant. He really created homelessness in this country because he thought that — and he said this to David Brinkley, he said, the homeless just want to live outside. They don’t want homes.

Borowitz ignored that whole “winning the Cold War” thing. He also waved away the objection Isaacson, who was shockingly reasonable, raised by reminding him that “really smart people” like McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara made foolish decisions before Reagan by simply declaring smart people also make mistakes.

Moving beyond Reagan, Borowitz also included George W. Bush and the Iraq War, but when Isaacson reminded him that prominent Democrats also supported the war, he again explained that away as them being smart, but wrong.

While it was nice Isaacson pointed out that Borowitz had one standard for Bush and Reagan and another for Democrats, it would have been even better if he had bothered to ask why he makes excuses for the latter but not the former and his incorrect depiction of Reagan’s intellect.

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Here is a transcript for the September 23 show:

PBS Amanpour and Company

9/24/2022

12:00 AM

WALTER ISAACSON: But you sort of start the contemporary age of it with Ronald Reagan’s election as governor of California. And you call it, sort of, the stage of ridicule. Explain that to me.

ANDY BOROWITZ: Well, I focused on the last 50 years of American ignorance. It has been a centuries old trend, of course, and goes back to the 17th century. I won’t get into that. But yes, there are the three stages of ignorance, as I defined them, which are ridicule, acceptance, and celebration. And Ronald Reagan really kicked off the ridicule phase.

In the ridicule stage, politicians who were ignorant had to pretend to be smart. And Ronald Reagan was great on TV, that’s why he was recruited by some Californian millionaires to run for governor. But he didn’t know anything. He knew very, very little. And so, they had to pump him full of information to make it seem like he knew stuff, and he won the election by a million votes. And that really got the whole party started.

ISAACSON: Yeah, you say he didn’t know anything. But let me just ask you, it seems like an odd question, who was smarter, Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter?

BOROWITZ: Oh, clearly, Jimmy Carter. And, you know, smart is an interesting adjective. I’m not qualified as a neurologist to know much — how much brain capacity somebody has. I’m really not qualified in that regard. But one thing I think that’s really important is how much intellectual curiosity you have. And that’s usually reflected in how much you read. And people like Jimmy Carter read a ton. Harry Truman read a ton. Ronald Reagan didn’t open a single book in college. And when his chief of staff, James Baker, prepared a briefing book for a big economic summit, he didn’t touch that. And James Baker said, why didn’t you read that last night? And he said, “well, Jim, The Sound of Music was on TV.

ISAACSON: Well, let me drill down a bit on that. You say that Ronald Reagan was not nearly as smart as Jimmy Carter. Yet, what is the correlation with success there? Ronald Reagan actually was a very successful president in terms of getting done what he wanted to get done. Jimmy Carter was remarkably unsuccessful. Why are people like you putting so much on this notion of quote “intelligence” when it doesn’t seem to correlate to success as president?

BOROWITZ: Well, it depends on how you define success really, I guess. I don’t regard Ronald Reagan as a successful president. I think he was successful in getting elected. I think he was very successful in getting his agenda through. But what that agenda was, unfortunately, was very redolent of his own ignorance.

He let the AIDS crisis spiral out of control because he was very unaware of what AIDS was or what it meant. He really created homelessness in this country because he thought that — and he said this to David Brinkley, he said, the homeless just want to live outside. They don’t want homes.

So, in terms of ignorance, yes. A guy who is very good on TV, like Ronald Reagan, much better than Jimmy Carter, he cleaned his clock in the debate, he’s going to have much more success electorally, and he’s going to have a lot of success, perhaps, getting his agenda through.

But what that agenda is and what it will mean for America is another thing. And that’s where I think it helps to actually read a book.

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