Saturday, September 6, 2008

How much do brains matter in a President?

It happens pretty much like clockwork: In every presidential election that I can remember, voters are assured that the Republican is a brainless buffoon, and the Democrat a savvy intellectual. I first saw this with the 1976 election, when I was 15 years old and, for the first time, politically aware. Gerald Ford was presented as a big, dumb jock, who couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. Jimmy Carter was a brilliant, analytical engineer.

In 1980, as you recall, Ronald Reagan was the actor/jock who had simplistic ideas. I remember going around parroting the line that you could wade through Reagan's deepest thoughts without getting your ankles wet. Carter, of course, despite his abysmal Presidential record was still, as the media repeatedly assured us, so much smarter.

By 1984, Reagan's intellectualism had fallen even lower in the media's and pundit's estimation. The guy was dumb as a rock, and spoke in stupid, infantile terms about evil, and freedom, and simplistic things like that. He had no nuance. Fortunately, the savvy (but pure) Walter Mondale was going to save us from the guy with the obvious 2 digit IQ.

Fast forward a few years to 1988, and you've got the inarticulate George H.W. Bush, who was obviously too dumb to communicate in basic English, despite his illustrious career. And on the other side, you've got the pedantic Michael Dukakis, who really did sound like a hyper-analytical university professor. He was obviously smart.

I don't need to remind you of the Clinton years. For me, they pass in a blur of paeans praising his extraordinary intelligence. The press wrote reams of laudatory columns about his ebullient wonkishness, his extraordinary ability to master complex ideas, and his lust for knowledge. The only person smarter than he was, the press assured us, was his wife, a woman who intelligently subordinated her own career to exponentially expand the power of his through their combined brains.

Wait! I forgot, there was one person smarter than Clinton -- Al Gore! Al Gore, the great genius who made Dukakis look like a fluent, witty speaker. Al Gore, the all seeing, all knowing internet inventor. It was unthinkable that George W. Bush, the ultimate buffoon, a man with a West Texas accent and a habit of speaking about "nukular" weapons, could beat this Ivy League genius. And yet the unthinkable happened. And it happened again when the even smarter and more intellectual John Kerry also went down before that buffoon. (Never mind that subsequent investigation revealed that the "buffoon" did better at Yale than either of these two shining lights.)

It should be no surprise at this point that the exact same pattern is shaping up here. Obama, as we know, is even smarter than all of his Democratic predecessors put together! He is a luminous speaker (as long as he has a script). He's a luminous writer (although his off-script speaking skills are beginning to tell me that, as much as anything else, he had a good editor). He's just plain luminous. Palin, with her non-Ivy League degree, her slightly goofy Alaska accent, her beauty queen credentials is, of course, laughable when compared to Obama, right?

Well, I'm not so sure. For the fun of it, let's accept as true that all of these Democrats are indeed infinitely more brilliant than their Republican opponents. I won't get into petty discussions about GPAs and IQs. I'm going to agree: Each Democratic candidate since at least 1976 has had -- I don't know -- heck, let's give him 40 IQ points on his Republican opponent. The question is whether, even if we accept the genius Democratic premise as true, those type of academic smarts matter.

Popular culture has always joked that those who can, do; and those who can't, teach. Growing up, as the child of a teacher, and with the assumption that I would eventually get myself a PhD (only to end up with a JD), I always thought that this olds expression was sour grapes. The correct expression in my world would have been, those who are smart excel academically and use big words; and those who aren't smart, well, they aren't smart. Life has taught me otherwise.

What I've learned is that you can be too smart for your own good. Take my father. He was a superb teacher, and a truly fascinating and erudite man, but that's not why he taught. The wages were abysmal and it would have been great if he could have held another job -- but he couldn't. His sense of intellectual superiority made him a miserable employee. He never rose past the bottom ranks because he was so deeply offended by having to work for stupid people -- a disdain he made manifes -- that those same stupid people, all of whom were further up the hierarchy than he was, made sure to keep him firmly under their thumbs. He never got fired because he was an honest and reliable worker, but he never got promoted either. So much for his brains (and they were impressive).

Or take my uncle. It is no exaggeration to say that he was the most brilliant student in the history of the Jewish Academic high school in pre-WWII Berlin. (My father, who was much younger, repeatedly heard this encomium to his older brother from teachers frustrated by the fact that my father was merely smart, and not brilliant.) Considering that the school was both German and Jewish, you can imagine the standards. My uncle was a bona fide genius. He was also a complete git.

My uncle ended his life as a low level civil servant living in squalor with his wife and adult child in a one bedroom apartment in Copenhagen. My mother, to this day, recalls how he and his family eschewed handkerchiefs, opting instead to blow their noses into their hands and then wipe their fingers on the walls.

It would be too facile to say my uncle was just another tragedy of the war, someone damaged by the the hunt from pillar to post as he stayed one step ahead of the Nazis. The fact is that others fared worse than he did, but did better in the end. What he was was an embittered Leftist, who was so convinced of everyone else's stupidity (and, when it came to brains, he was right about the others, I guess) that he became dysfunctional.

Those are family anecdotes, but you can learn a lot too by looking at our brilliant Democratic presidents and our less brilliant Republican ones. Jimmy Carter, the brilliant engineer, was quite possibly the most wishy-washy man ever to hold the office. An engineer friend of mine explained that Carter made calculations. He assembled data and reached a conclusion. Add in new data and he'd arrive at a new conclusion. My friend's analysis was right as far as it went -- that was how Carter thought -- but it missed the scary corollary: Carter had no fixed principles. He lived in a moral vacuum in which everything was a factual problem that could be solve by manipulating integers.

The arguably less intelligent Reagan might not have had the world's greatest head for details, but that left him a lot of space for large thoughts about abstract values. He cherished freedom and therefore didn't get bogged down in the real politik that was de rigeur in Washington when he took office. He knew that the Soviet Union was an evil institution and was able to keep his eye on that ball. Likewise, he figured out that governments don't make money, they just spend money. People make money. This was intuitively correct and was backed up by the collapse of socialist economic systems. He didn't need experts to spell out in stifling academic details an opposite principle that could not possibly be true.

Clinton too had a Carter-esque habit of getting bogged down in inessential details. Even the loving press noted how people often dreaded going into meetings with him because he was unable to stay focused. His overweening sense of his intelligence also blocked his moral compass. Clinton felt that he was too smart for the petty rules confining ordinary people. (Same for Mrs. Clinton.) Smart and narcissistic, they both did precisely what they wanted because they refused to believe that mere mortals could catch up with them. When mere mortals did catch up, rather than being repentant, they were actually offended that ordinary people would come after them.

I believe that precisely the same pattern is emerging here. I'll concede that Obama is a smart guy, with a good word sense. (Especially if the word is "uh, uh, uh," which pops up a lot in his extemporaneous speaking.) However, he's already shown over and over again that, in common with people who believe that they're smarter than the average bear, he's guilty of terrible and dangerous hubris. He's also incapable of learning from his mistakes because, in his own mind, he's too smart to make mistakes. Anything that goes wrong is the other guy's fault. I think this accounts for the ponderous, inept, back-firing attacks that he's aiming at Palin.

In contrast, Palin and McCain may not be the greatest intellectual lights in the world, but that's probably a good thing. They speak clearly. They embrace simple, intuitive ideas. They are able to view the big picture without getting bogged down in details. And they're very, very clear on larger values and morals issues. Because they're not getting tangled in petty sidelines of thought, they don't see moral questions as being above their pay grade. Their answers ultimately may not be right, but at least they have them.

I hope you don't take this post as an attack on intellectuals, academics and smart people generally. I think smart people are wonderful and delightful. I know many who are almost obscenely functional and who have utterly admirable values. It's just that I think that the Democrats' obsessive focus on smarts leads them to a form of arrogance that blocks situational awareness, that makes them extremely arrogant and that, in extreme cases, enables them to substitute values free analysis for fixed moral principles.


Ferny for McCain at Stanford said...

Another great post!

I would like to add that there is an extra dimension in this IQ issue that the Dems are missing. The type of smarts demostrated by the engineers or lawyers the Dems have been briging in again and again is surely linguistic and, at best, mathematical. Now, there has been a lot of disscussion during the last 20 years about whether those two are the only two ways a person can be smart .

It is obvious that given the appropriate opportunities people with high lnguistic and mathematical intelligence will surely achieve distinction by received degrees from good schools, etc. I challenge however the notion that being smart in this IQ sense is intimately correlated, let alone "causation", of political acumen, which is the type of acumen displayed by Ronald Reagan, for instance. It doesn't seem that there is any evidence that he who was the greatest American president according to many academics had an IQ out of the charts (estimates speak of an IQ ~ 130-150 which is pretty good but not a 5 sigma event). It seems to me, and that's not an original idea of mine, I just forgot who who said it first, that traditional IQ is certainly not a good measure of a person's abilities related to areas not measured by IQ tests. It's better to think of that IQ as a threshold beyond which 10-20 extra points don't seem to matter much. Even people who are highly smart IQ-wise can fail in achieving good careers in the intelligentsia business if they fail in the marketing department.

From I have seen, both McCain and Palin have the minimum smarts required to be good leaders. It's also obvious that both beat the Obama/Biden ticket in the important factors we need in the next leader of the United States: experience, world knowledge, independence, boldness and willingness to stand up for the motto "America is not afraid of history, America makes history". That's the type of leadership we want for the United States. The Obama/Biden ticket might be a good fit for a fearful and decadent European country, such as any EU member, but not for America. That's what Ronald Reagan understood very well and that's how he managed to be the lastest great American president.

McCain/Palin '08!

TheMassMouth said...

This is a very astute post, an observation not often commented on. The thought that sheer intellectual mastery is an important qualification for our president actually goes back farther than 1976. It goes back at least to the Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson elections of 1952 and 1956. Adlai Stevenson was in no way the obvious Democrat nominee in 1952; the party was Harry Truman's -- and Harry Truman was a doer and in no way any sort of intellectual. (Smart ? Yes he was smart, but through experience and common sense, not university learning.) But Stevenson, a Princeton graduate (DISCLOSURE: so am I), quickly became the choice of the Eleanor Roosevelt people, academics strong among them, and his oratory and eloquence quickly mobilized that era's much smaller but not insignificant academic community.

The "Stevenson Democrats" remained, however, a minority in the Democrat party for a long time after that. It wasn't until Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" (Lyndon was of course the very opposite of an intellectual) legislation included vast sums of federal funding for educaion, including universities, that there came to be a HUGE expansion of colleges and universities of all types in America and thus a huge expansion in the number of professors, researchers, Ph.D. candidates, and such.

Many of these new universities and colleges became the incubators of "think tanks" and other research and advocacy centers for one-issue politics. At first almost all of these research centers were set up to further Democrat issues and political people. Republicans were slow to appreciate the rise of this new institutional structure, Today we too now have our intellectual institutional cadres -- which is one reason why political discourse has become so fierce, so rude. There are no brou hahas anywhere as mean as academic ones!

As for the media, it was in no way aligned with the smartness criterion, or to the Democrat party, until those same Lyndon Johnson years. It was, as we all now know, the Viet Nam conflict that brought large numbers of academic activists into the radical left and onto the political scene. Many, many radical left groups started their own newspapers -- some still exist today, though long since morphed into mainstream publications -- on which a great many 1970s-1990s journalists received their first assignments and training -- at a time when they too were university students.

The Republicans were late to this party as well. And fortunately so. Our politics have remained grounded in the practicality of Harry Truman and the Congressional craftsmanship of Lyndon Johnson. That's who we were. That's what Gerald Ford was. Ronald Reagan too was very much a Harry Truman figure. Remember that he was a Democrat (indeed, a union president) during the Harry Truman years. The first President Bush was also a Harry Truman era figure, a Republican Dean Acheson: of the Eastern Ivy League establishment (from Yale. Oh well...) but with a character and outlook formed by experience. His son, of course, has spent his entire career trying NOT to be a Yale Easterner *which he was) but an authentic Good Ole Boy, and in many respects he is such -- a Lyndon Johnson without the profanity.

As the Democrat party became captured by the new university / education establishment and its Stevensonian, even radical, priorities, so the Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson sorts of voters (and politicians) gravitated more and more to the Republican party, I could post for many many more pages a narrative of how this move proceeded; but no one yet has given me a $ 500,000 book contract to write it, so let it suffice for now that I sum up by describing this election as "Harry Truman versus Adlai Stevenson." John McCain, soldier, Senator from the West, plain spoken fighter; BHO, academic, thinker, and senator from Illinois -- Adlai Stevenson's state.

Anonymous said...

The MSM likes to portray the Republicans as dummies and Democrats as brilliant scholars, but that's simply not so. The much maligned Gerald Ford graduated from the University of Michagan and then Yale Law School in the top quarter of his class.

John Kerry and Al Gore were supposed to be intellectuals while George Bush was too dumb to tie his own shoes, but when you look their their college transcripts, you can see that they made pretty much the same grades, with Bush actually better.

Anyway, as someone who has worked in academia for almost thirty years, I can tell you that grades and degrees have very little to do with real intelligence and competence.

KY Person

David said...

Quite a few years ago, I was in an executive staff meeting. A junior manager (not part of the executive staff and not normally in the meeting) came in to give a presentation, which was supposed to be about some project proposal. The presentation was very complex and nuanced, and several of us were having a hard time figuring out where it was going. Finally, the senior person in the room spoke up:

"Fred," he said. "You don't have to convince us that you're smart. We already believe that you're smart. Just tell us what you want to do!"

And the guy giving the presentation couldn't do it. He couldn't stop showing off his analysis and actually come to the point of what he was proposing.

I think a similar phenomenon--the endless need to prove one's own smartness--is very common among "progressives."

Half Sigma said...

McCain is clearly capable of being president, as demonstrated by his track record of success in Congress and his career in the military.

But Palin is barely smart enough to be qualified to be principal of a high school, and her lucky election to governor of a tiny state in no way qualifies her to be ready to lead the country.

McCain should have picked Romney, the smartest guy who spoke at the convention.

TheMassMouth said...

to Anonymous: I did not know that resident Ford was a Yale Law School graduate. Point well taken. My thesis still stads, however. It was by being practical, not academic, that President Ford made his mark.

NOTE: Larry Sabato said on FOX News just now that next week there will be nationwide polls showing John McCain leading by a number greater than the margin of error.

Ferny for McCain at Stanford said...

half sigma,

Don't make me laugh. In just a few seconds it's very easy to find Obama nonsense in youtube (which the media didn't seem to care a few months ago), such as,


When asked about his executive experience this week, Obama said that he had been running a national campaign... Very well, by the same token, Karl Rove is a heck lot more qualified than Obama to be President. Bill Shneider , a clearly biased democratic analyst for CNN put it best: "If voters are choosing between two men, they will probably choose McCain. If they’re choosing between two policies, I think Obama has the edge: newer, smarter, fresher"

Other than the obvious fact that Obama's policies are neither newer, smarter or fresher (they are the same failed "Great Society"-Socialist policies pushed by the Democrats during the 60's), it's obvious that McCain is more qualified than Obama to be president which is why the Democrats don't want to get there with Palin (min 5:00).

TheMassMouth said...

sorry half sigma, you would sooner or later have been very disappointed by Mr. Romney. As if his daffy speech at the Convention wasn't bad enough, any time you'd like to know Mitt a little better, just ask me. I'm from MA, the state he....governed ? I have watched the Morphster since he ran against Ted Kennedy for US senator in 1994...from the left !

Smart-Cookie said...


Thank you for your very interesting perspective. It's true that I could have more accurately named myself "Average-Cookie" ... but I appreciate your analysis of the 'importance' of impressive intelligence when it comes to leadership.

I enjoyed David's comments especially ... "You don't have to convince us that you're smart. We already believe that you're smart. Just tell us what you want to do!"

Leadership and IQ are two completely separate things. I think you did quite a good job pointing out the difference among American presidents.

I also think that Americans are smart in general. Each American who embraces life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness shows that they have what it takes to achieve the American Dream. There is no IQ test for that.

I heard Sen. Ted Kennedy give a very empassioned speech to Congress several months ago regarding the "need" for more money to be funnelled from taxpayers to non-taxpayers so that an education would be available to everybody. Unfortunately, I was stuck in a car on the beltway heading to an executive meeting myself, so I wasn't able to pull over and barf, although that's what I felt I wanted to do.

Btw, I'll be paying well into my 70's for the education of my stepsons. It takes three of us (including the boys' mother) having to borrow the money, to put the two of them through college. Every year, we have to just "take it" when we don't qualify for any of the tax write-offs for education expenses. Each year, our debt increases to pay tuition and expenses. Every election I have to hear elitist liberals talk about how everything in America would be better if only we weren't so selfish and would vote for our government to take more of our earnings to give to others so they don't have to work as hard as we do to provide for their families, or achieve as much as we have.

No thanks. My IQ: "I" pay "Q"uite enough taxes already! I'll say the same thing to the rest of our government that I told the Republican Party earlier this spring when they were soliticiting donations: Do a better job!

I donated my maximum to John McCain for President.

McCain/Palin 08!

the great booger said...

It's sad. most of you overcomplimcate such a basic issue: the world now hates/blames the US for everything. It's your fault. standing by while the recounts happened, standing by while the war happened, standing by while the economy was destroyed by greedy americans. I've lost my faith in all this country stood for. mostly, and sadly, from the trash i've read here today. thanks,