Do Dim Bulbs Make Better Presidents?

Politics and policy.
Nov. 3 1999 12:50 PM

Do Dim Bulbs Make Better Presidents?

This week's New Yorker reproduces a document that George W. Bush wasn't 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 League's 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 shed he ain't.

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The two authors of the New Yorker article, Jane Mayer and Alexandra Robbins, buttress their insult to the governor's privacy with a backhanded compliment. "Historically, there is no correlation between academic achievement and success in the Oval Office," they note. Many of Bush's highbrow conservative supporters, such as George Will, go even farther, arguing that thick-headedness is a positive advantage. In a recent column lauding Bush, Will recalls the contest between three book-writers for president in 1912--Teddy 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," 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 Carter happened to be both bright and inept, and that Reagan was both disconnected and lovable. Another problem: The names on the list are subject to extensive quibbling. Was Reagan really a great president? Was Wilson a failure, just because Congress rejected the Versailles treaty? Someday, someone will demolish the myth of Carter's 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, unserious in college, had the supplest of political wits about him.

I can also provide some equally tendentious counterexamples. Highly capable 20th-century presidents who were sharp as tacks include John F. Kennedy and--bring on the hate mail!--William Jefferson 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? I think the theory derives from the familiar prejudice against intelligence, which holds that people who are too smart must be limited in other ways. There's 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. William F. Buckley expressed this view for the ages when he made his famous observation that he'd rather be ruled by the first hundred names in the Cambridge phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University.

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 Ronald Reagan--please. I don't dispute that Reagan deserves copious credit for bringing an early and glorious 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 Reagan to behave in this way wasn't a tribute to his thickness. Vaclav Havel acted just as single-mindedly. But an American president also needs to grasp more complex realities--and Reagan often couldn't. When it came to understanding something mildly technical, such as the federal budget, he was baffled. As described by David Stockman, he simply couldn't process the information that his contradictory goals would produce a vast deficit, despite repeated attempts to spell it out for him in words and pictures.

Or look at Richard Nixon. Nixon's strong intelligence is the reason that there is something on the plus side of his presidential ledger. Most scholars agree that Nixon's most significant accomplishment--the opening of relations with China--was the product of his own shrewd analysis of foreign policy, not Henry Kissinger's. Nixon himself wrote an article on the subject in Foreign Affairs in 1967 laying out the case for what he subsequently did. Nixon was undone as president not because he was too shrewd but because of something shrewdness didn't help him with: personal bitterness and lack of scruples. Likewise with Bill Clinton. Where Clinton has deployed his own formidable brain, primarily in economic and some areas of domestic policy, he has largely succeeded. Where he does his thinking with other organs, he has undermined himself.

In fact, I think the conservative case for presidential stupidity has it exactly backwards. Presidents get into the most trouble not when they behave like intellectuals but when they delegate crucial brainwork to "intellectuals on tap," as Brookhiser calls them. A history of this sort of folly might start with some of the failed schemes of the New Deal economists before describing the way that the "whiz kids" led LBJ astray on both the Vietnam War and the war on poverty. It would touch on the bad advice Pat Moynihan gave Richard Nixon on welfare and that Ira Magaziner gave Bill Clinton on health care. There is probably no modern president, smart or dumb, who hasn't landed himself in hot water by hiring intellectuals and then failing to second-guess them.

To be sure, intelligence of the kind that might manifest itself in high SAT scores isn't the most important quality in a chief executive. Leadership, integrity, and determination are all more critical qualities. Dumb luck helps. Dumbness doesn't.

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