Presidency is not for dummies

November 14, 1999|By Jacob Weisberg

A RECENT issue of New Yorker magazine included a document that Texas Gov. George W. Bush wasnt eager to have published: his Yale transcript, which includes his SAT scores (566 verbal, 640 math) and college grades (C-average).

One doesn't want to read too much into someone's 35-year-old academic records, which in this case are mainly interesting as a reminder of how powerful the Ivy Leagues affirmative-action program for alumni brats used to be. But the data do tend to substantiate what many have gleaned from listening to the Republican front-runner abuse the English language: The sharpest tool in the she'd he ain't.

The two authors of the New Yorker article, Jane Mayer and Alexandra Robbins, buttress their insult to the governors privacy with a backhanded compliment. Historically, there is no correlation between academic achievement and success in the Oval Office, they note.

Many of Mr. Bush's highbrow conservative supporters, such as columnist George Will, go even farther, arguing that thick-headedness is a positive advantage. In a recent column lauding Mr. Bush, Mr. Will recalled the contest between three book-writers for president in 1912 -- Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Howard Taft -- noting that such intellect in politics is rare, and perhaps should be.

The conservative writer Richard Brookhiser recently made a version of the same case in American Heritage. Perhaps the wise leader should strive to have intellectuals on tap and not be one himself, Mr. Brookhiser writes.

The case against intellect in the White House is brilliantly counterintuitive. If only Dan Quayle had been able to grasp it, he might have used it to great advantage in this year's presidential race. But is it correct?

The argument rests mainly on some fairly compelling anecdotal evidence. The list of less-than-brilliant men judged great by those making this argument usually begins with Ronald Reagan and often includes Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman as well. The list of intellectually gifted but ineffectual presidents has Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover and Woodrow Wilson. Objection: The sample here is too small to be statistically meaningful. It could just be a coincidence that Mr. Carter happened to be both bright and inept, and that Mr. Reagan was both disconnected and lovable.

Brilliant or dim?

Another problem: The names on the list are subject to extensive quibbling. Was Mr. Reagan really a great president? Was Wilson a failure, just because Congress rejected the Versailles treaty? Someday, someone will demolish the myth of Mr. Carters alleged brilliance. And was FDR, who took gentleman Cs at Harvard, truly less than highly intelligent?

This supposition relies heavily on Oliver Wendell Holmes oft-quoted observation that Roosevelt was a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Holmes was wrong about this and that FDR, lackluster in college, had the most supple of political wits about him. I can also provide some equally tendentious counter examples. Highly capable 20th-century presidents who were sharp as tacks include John F. Kennedy and -- bring on the hate mail! -- President Clinton.

A list of relative dimwits who were lousy chief executives might include Warren G. Harding (who described himself, accurately, as too dumb to be president) and Gerald R. Ford (who played one too many games without a helmet, in the memorable phrase of Lyndon B. Johnson).

Given that stupidity is not an advantage in any other profession, why would it help a president? Theres a popular notion that people who think too much can t act -- Hamlet is not the guy you want to run your company. And there's a conservative, political version of this idea, which holds that intellectuals are bound to be impractical, immoral and too eager to impose their rationalist, radical schemes on the rest of us. But the dumb-is-better argument falls apart when you look more closely at the personal qualities and corresponding successes and failures of just about any president.

The ones who were dim but successful successfully compensated for their dimness with other qualities. But the lack of intelligence still harmed them. Take Mr. Reagan -- please. He deserves copious credit for bringing an early end to the Cold War. One of the ways he did this was by taking an unambiguous moral stand against communism, which gave powerful encouragement to the opposition in Eastern-bloc countries.

But the moral certainty that caused Mr. Reagan to behave in this way wasnt a tribute to his thickness. Vaclav Havel acted just as single-mindedly. But an American president also needs to grasp more complex realities -- and Mr. Reagan often couldn't.

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