Watching President Barack Obama at the White House health care summit last week, it was hard not to have an obvious thought: Could George W. Bush have done this? It is tough to imagine Bush leading a seven-hour gabfest on a complex policy matter, being able to master the specifics and nuances, and field questions about in-the-weeds details as Obama did. Which brings me to another idea: Are Democratic presidents smarter than Republican presidents?
Before proceeding, let me stipulate that there are different sorts of intelligence, and conventional (or book) smarts does not guarantee a president a good ride. (W., some folks claim, has oodles of social intelligence.
) Yet it is all too easy to envision either Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter hosting an event like the health care summit and doing a fine job. Weeks before he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Clinton, well known for his lust for policy wonkery, demonstrated his talents. In December 1992, as president-elect, he skillfully played host a two-day economic summit in Little Rock with 300 business and labor leaders.
Jimmy Carter, who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy and who subsequently studied nuclear engineering, was also a smarty-pants. In a 1979 Atlantic Monthly article criticizing Carter's "passionless presidency," James Fallows, who had been a speechwriter in the first half of Carter's only term, observed
With his moral virtues and his intellectual skills, he is perhaps as admirable a human being as has ever held the job. He is probably smarter, in the College Board sense, than any other president in this century. He grasps issues quickly. He made me feel confident that, except in economics, he would resolve technical questions lucidly, without distortions imposed by cant or imperfect comprehension.
Carter would labor over thick briefing books, pore over budget tables, and check the math. (But, Fallows lamented, he also could get bogged down in bureaucratic minutiae, such as when he personally reviewed requests from staffers to use the White House tennis courts.) Carter would have relished a policy showdown like the health care summit.
Now think of George W. Bush, his father or Ronald Reagan at the helm of such an event. W might have been able to get by if the subject were education policy. That seemed a domestic policy area he had an interest in. But even with a subject he knew well, would Bush have been able to contend with hours and hours of details-drenched questions tossed at him? He was not a fellow known for quick thinking in public on important matters. His Bushisms are famous -- or infamous. (One favorite: In a November 2006 speech, he said about the Iraq war, "The only way we can win is to leave before the job is done.") And as Michael Isikoff and I showed in our book, "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War,"
Bush displayed a true lack of intellectual curiosity in the months before he invaded Iraq about what would happen afterward. He was not a details man.
As for the first President Bush, OK, he did come across as a smart fellow. But he didn't show a great deal of intellectual interest in domestic policy matters. During a town-hall-style presidential debate in 1992, H.W. checked his watch
and looked impatient, when a voter asked him how the ongoing recession had affected him. How could he have tussled with members of Congress for hours on health care?
And Ronald Reagan -- could he have gotten through a complicated policy matter without index cards in front of him? A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens compiled an incomplete sampling of what he termed "the stupidity of Ronald Reagan"
Ronald Reagan claimed that the Russian language had no word for "freedom." (The word is "svoboda"; it's quite well attested in Russian literature.) Ronald Reagan said that intercontinental ballistic missiles . . . could be recalled once launched. Ronald Reagan said that he sought a "Star Wars" defense only in order to share the technology with the tyrants of the U.S.S.R. Ronald Reagan professed to be annoyed when people called it "Star Wars," even though he had ended his speech on the subject with the lame quip, "May the force be with you." Ronald Reagan used to alarm his Soviet counterparts by saying that surely they'd both unite against an invasion from Mars. Ronald Reagan used to alarm other constituencies by speaking freely about the "End Times" foreshadowed in the Bible. In the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan told Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal, on two separate occasions, that he himself had assisted personally at the liberation of the Nazi death camps [though he had not]. . . .
Reagan announced that apartheid South Africa had "stood beside us in every war we've ever fought," when the South African leadership had been on the other side in the most recent world war. . . . Reagan sold heavy weapons to the Iranian mullahs and lied about it, saying that all the weapons he hadn't sold them (and hadn't traded for hostages in any case) would, all the same, have fit on a small truck. Reagan then diverted the profits of this criminal trade to an illegal war in Nicaragua and lied unceasingly about that, too. Reagan then modestly let his underlings maintain that he was too dense to understand the connection between the two impeachable crimes. He then switched without any apparent strain to a policy of backing Saddam Hussein against Iran.
And there was more -- such as Reagan's claim that trees cause "80 percent of our air pollution."
Moreover, in 1986, CBS News reporter Lesley Stahl interviewed Reagan in the Oval Office and was shocked to find him incoherent and incapable of answering basic questions. She thought she might have to file a report disclosing that the president was a "doddering space cadet."
But as the interview continued, Reagan eventually returned to coherence. Afterward, she agreed to a White House request not to reveal what she had seen. In 1994, Reagan acknowledged he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Is there any doubt that the collective brainpower of Reagan, Bush I and Bush II wouldn't come close to that of Carter, Clinton and Obama? But before conservatives and Republicans yelp, I will acknowledge that there's not necessarily a direct connection between intelligence and leadership. Carter was seen as hapless by many Americans. Clinton was plenty dumb regarding his behavior in the Oval Office. And Obama's brilliance, to date, has not wowed Congress sufficiently to win him health care reform. And according to the polls, his assorted displays of intellectual acumen have not raised his approval ratings. (By the way, a new scientific report finds that self-identified liberals have higher IQs
Whenever I ponder the relationship between political success and smarts, I recall an interview I conducted with a particular George W. Bush supporter at a Wisconsin campaign rally shortly before the 2000 election. At that event, Bush had produced what seemed a record crop of weird and mangled statements, including this classic: "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream." Once the event was done, I asked this enthusiastic Bush-backer -- a middle-aged woman -- if she thought there was an intelligence gap between Bush and Al Gore. She conceded that Gore had more upstairs than Bush, but she quickly added, "Being smart isn't everything."
Obviously, conventional intelligence is not the key ingredient for a successful politician or president. After all, Reagan and Bush II enacted key aspects of their agendas -- for good or bad -- and won re-election. Maybe the question is, not which presidents are smarter, but whether it matters?
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