In Praise of Clinton’s Brain

In his Dec. 9 press conference, Bill Clinton, perhaps inadvertently, stimulated some thoughts about his presidential legacy. Asked who he would name as man of the century, Clinton chose Franklin Roosevelt (reportedly Time magazine has made the same choice). Clinton told the famous story of Roosevelt, on first being elected president in 1932, visiting the nonagenarian Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, prompting Holmes to observe that while Roosevelt didn’t have a first-class mind, he had a first-class temperament.

By now it’s well understood that Clinton lacks a first-class, or even a second-class, temperament. He can’t control his impulses, especially the libidinal ones; he has an unattractive tendency to blame other people for his problems; he has a terrifyingly effective gift for misleading and, occasionally, telling outright lies. People who work for him rarely come away from the experience with a high opinion of his character. Chatterbox continues to believe that the nation (and, without question, Al Gore) would have been better off had Clinton chosen to resign the presidency in the summer of 1998.

But though Clinton lacks a first-class temperament, he possesses a first-class mind. By this, Chatterbox doesn’t mean only that Clinton is knowledgeable and smart; Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon were knowledgeable and smart, too, but they weren’t particularly good presidents. As the former Carter speechwriter James Fallows* famously observed in an Atlantic Monthly article, “The Passionless Presidency,” Carter had a habit of deploying his intelligence toward pathetically small matters like deciding who could use the White House tennis court. Nixon, meanwhile, was someone whose brilliance blended seamlessly into paranoia, doing serious damage to his judgment. Clinton, by contrast, is someone whose brain (unlike other parts of his body) seems always to be deployed in just the right places, shining light on an astonishing variety of important matters. (Check out his comments at yesterday’s press conference on trade, Chechnya, and health care, among others.) The many accomplishments of Clinton’s administration, most especially his management of the economy, resulted much more from the sharpness and discipline of Clinton’s mind than from the shiftiness and dithering of Clinton’s temperament (which some people have mistaken for brilliant leadership).

There are many smart people running for president this year, but none of them will likely match Clinton’s ability to wear his intelligence so lightly and so well. Anyone who’s ever read Al Gore’s Earth in the Balance knows that Gore’s formidable intelligence is a clunky suit of armor. (Fortunately, when Gore isn’t in his tortured-intellectual mode, his judgment is much better.) Bill Bradley’s intelligence has a narcissistic quality, too often focused on demonstrating its exquisite sensitivity. John McCain’s intelligence, like his temperament, is impulsive in the best and worst senses. (For an example of the latter, see “Who’s Afraid of an Internet Tax?“) Steve Forbes’ is monomaniacal and deluded. Gary Bauer’s, Pat Buchanan’s, and Alan Keyes’ are completely devoted to articulating (magnificently well) their extremist ideologies. Orrin Hatch and George W. Bush … well, let’s just say both are emphasizing character and quantity of experience above all else.

Chatterbox will not miss many things about Clinton when he’s gone. But he will miss his brain, and that will be missing a lot.

*subsequently Chatterbox’s boss at U.S. News & World Report