A question that has dogged George W. Bush for months is one no candidate wants to hear: Is he smart enough to be president? The issue first arose when he couldn’t name the leaders of several important countries during a radio talk show pop quiz, was reinforced by reports that he spent his college years in fraternity high jinks, and has been kept alive by his chronic inability to construct grammatical sentences or pronounce words correctly. Anyone with degrees from Yale and Harvard is presumed to be intelligent, but Bush has managed to overcome that presumption. In last Tuesday’s debate, it’s true, he didn’t say anything to sound like a moron. But he also didn’t give viewers any reason to doubt that Gore is the smarter guy.
Bush’s problem is not a new one for the Republican Party. In fact, it’s a perennial handicap. Bob Dole was regarded as a man without ideas whose intellectual horizon started and stopped at the Senate Rules Committee. Clark Clifford dismissed Ronald Reagan as “an amiable dunce.” Gerald Ford’s verbal and physical pratfalls were made for Saturday Night Live. Dwight Eisenhower became famous for mangling syntax and reading Zane Grey. On the other side, John Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize in biography for Profiles in Courage. Adlai Stevenson’s wit and erudition helped make him the darling of intellectuals, who saw him as a kindred soul. Bill Clinton is a former Rhodes scholar with a formidable capacity to absorb, digest, and make use of information on almost any subject.
Over the years, it’s become almost a given that Democratic nominees are brighter than their Republican rivals. The GOP has even tried to turn that perception into an advantage, as when George Bush portrayed Michael Dukakis as a high-falutin’ Cambridge intellectual.
The perception has a solid foundation in fact. Gore, for example, scored a 625 on the verbal portion of the SAT compared to Bush’s 566, and he has personally written articles and a book on serious subjects while W.’s aversion to serious reading is undisputed. In terms of IQ and intellectual curiosity, Democratic candidates have long enjoyed a conspicuous edge. Presidential historian William Leuchtenburg of the University of North Carolina says that to find a Republican who was clearly smarter than his rival, “you probably would have to go back to 1928” when Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith.
There are the occasional tossups, like Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman, and even Democrats derided Lyndon Johnson as an unlettered rube (though no more stupid than Barry Goldwater). But as Leuchtenburg says, it’s hard to find an example of a smart Republican running against a dim Democrat. Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, who worked in Richard Nixon’s White House, calls him “the smartest man I ever knew.” But his opponents were not exactly pinheads. Besides running against JFK, Nixon faced Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, both of whom were college professors before entering politics.
The real debate is not about whether Democrats generally possess superior brainpower but whether that advantage really matters. Richard Norton Smith, biographer of Hoover and Dewey, argues that Eisenhower was “a genius using people to get what he wanted.” Reagan was far more successful as a president than as a student. By contrast, an excess of IQ points didn’t prove much use to Carter or Nixon. With the help of Monica Lewinsky, Clinton proved beyond all doubt that intellectual prowess can coexist with disastrously poor judgment. Kennedy and his super-smart advisers helped make the term “the best and the brightest” an ironic putdown.
Hess argues that the differences between candidates are ultimately inconsequential. “Anyone who can get elected has the cognitive skills to do the job,” he says. Though Gore may be smarter than Bush, he contends, “Bush is quite superior in some skills.” Smith approvingly quotes John Marshall’s description of George Washington, whom he admired deeply, as “more solid than brilliant.”
If gray matter were the only consideration, of course, we would award the presidency to the winner of the College Bowl. But it’s still striking that gray matter counts so much more on the Democratic side. One explanation is that FDR was so hospitable to intellectuals, a tradition upheld by Stevenson and Kennedy. (JFK’s secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman, once said he got the job because Harvard didn’t have a school of agriculture.) In recent decades, Republican presidents have brought along their own high-octane thinkers—Edward Levi, George Shultz, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Martin Feldstein, and so on. But intellectuals, for whatever reason, still tend to congregate somewhere left of center. Americans who have done graduate work are considerably more likely than those with just a college education to vote Democratic. So Republicans are inclined to think that too much book learning can be just as harmful as too little.
In the end, high intelligence is neither a requirement for success in the Oval Office nor a reliable protection against failure. Other factors—character, convictions, communication skills, understanding of other people, and plain old luck—matter a great deal, too. And as Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker says, “Frankly, in American politics the standard of intelligence and academic excellence is not very high.” For any considering the prospect of Bush in the White House, that’s the good news. Or maybe the bad.