Lots of Brain Power: The complexity and consequences of the presidential office are well documented. Perhaps accurately, the office of the President of the United States is considered “the hardest job in the world.” Accordingly, and appropriately, the office has consistently featured intellectually adept – often superlative – individuals.
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The examples are numerous. Woodrow Wilson, who dropped out of law school – but passed the bar exam anyway, and later earned a Ph.D. – was generally revered for his intellect. Jimmy Carter, a Naval officer turned peanut farmer, has been called the smartest president of the 20th century. Bill Clinton was a lackadaisical law student who would skip class all semester before showing up to ace the final. As Governor of Arkansas, Clinton wowed staff with his knowledge of policy, which extended beyond just his home state to include initiatives across the country. Barack Obama was the editor of the Harvard Law Review, criticized for thinking he was too smart. Herbert Hoover was a world-famous geologist who then saved Europe from hunger after World War I. Richard Nixon, although machiavellian, had some intellectual heft.
But concerningly, over the last forty years, the office of the presidency seems to be trending away from intellect; it seems as though the standard for intelligence required to hold the office has declined. Indeed, many of the recent office holders have not appeared especially bright. Is there truth to this perception?
Analysis: White House Brain Power
The pivot point – away from intellect – begins with Ronald Reagan. Granted, Reagan was a brilliant communicator. And Reagan possessed sufficient self-awareness to leverage the common perception of himself – as a dullard – to “set traps,” meaning he would let people think he was stupid before ambushing them with his coherence. That the president was able to ambush people on account of not being stupid suggests a deviation from the presidential norm.
Reagan was, of course, not stupid – not by any measure – but he is generally regarded not to have been intelligent by the standard of the office of the presidency – the Woodrow Wilson-Jimmy Carter-Thomas Jefferson standard. Reagan was myopically focused on anti-communism, and his policy knowledge for roughly everything else was understood to be superficial. Reagan, one of the most successful presidents ever, whose tenure resulted in a watershed, transcendent moment for conservatives, reshaped the party in his image, creating an environment in which midwits had the potential to flourish.
George W. Bush Had His Moments
To be clear, academic and professional accomplishment can be exclusive from intelligence. Intelligent people are occasionally poorly educated. Educated people are often unintelligent. Take George W. Bush for example. Bush 43 held a bachelor’s from Yale and a masters in business administration from Harvard – making him one of the most well-educated people you could ever meet, at least on paper. But Bush’s intellect was portrayed as limited. Despite a prodigious memory, Bush “Wasn’t Smart,” according to New York magazine. Still, Bush has his defenders. Keith Hennessey, who served as a senior economic advisor to Bush, argued that the 43rd president was actually quite smart.
“President Bush is smarter than almost every one of you,” Hennessey once told the MBA class he was teaching at Stanford. “President Bush is extremely smart by any traditional standard. He’s highly analytical and was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer … In addition to his analytical speed, what most impressed me were his memory and his substantive breadth.”
To drive the point home, Hennessey relayed a story:
“On one particularly thorny policy issue on which [Bush’s] advisors had strong and deep disagreements, over the course of two weeks we (his senior advisors) held a series of three 90-minute meetings with the President. Shortly after the third meeting, we asked for his OK to do a fourth. He said, “How about rather than doing another meeting on this, I instead tell you now what each person will say.” He then ran through half a dozen of his advisors by name and precisely detailed each one’s arguments and pointed out their flaws. (needless to say, there was no fourth meeting.)”
So, perhaps Bush was gifted – and his portrayal as an inarticulate idiot was the work of liberal media bias. Well, intelligent or not, Bush advanced an image of the president as a common-IQ-citizen, someone you would meet for a beer after work, someone who avoided three-plus syllable words. He will always be the guy who said: “They misunderestimated me.”
Stumped on Trump
President Trump was another Ivy leaguer with questionable intellect.
Clearly, Trump had a talent for sensing the restless zeitgeist of middle America – when so many coastal elites were pondering forward, oblivious to the suffering, and resultant outrage, that so many Americans felt. Making such a well-calibrated assessment, and leveraging it to win the presidency, requires some intuition and talent. Yet, Trump was often maligned for being anti-intellectual, perhaps stupid.
Granted, the liberal media despised Trump and portrayed him unfavorably regardless of what he actually did. So, the media’s portrayal of Trump as a blustering moron should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, Trump didn’t do much to help his case; he certainly doesn’t sound smart when he talks. And one of Trump’s former business school professors spent three decades harping on Trump as “the dumbest goddamn student I ever had.”
Trump’s immediate successor, President Joe Biden, was never an intellectual sort of guy. He glazed through undergrad at the University of Delaware and law school at Syracuse University – where he was a terrible student, finishing near the bottom of his class. Again, since grades often don’t align with smarts, and because Biden got himself elected to the Senate while still in his 20s, we’ll give him a pass and assume he had some smarts.
During fifty years of Washington service, Biden accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge; the former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden certainly knew his stuff. Biden’s tendency to say politically stupid things didn’t detract from the fact that he knew what he was talking about. But Biden is clearly in his senior years, and like so many octogenarians, he appears to be in cognitive decline.
So while Biden may have been impressive at his peak, the contemporary Biden, the Biden actually serving in the White House, does not appear especially smart. Whether Biden is still sharp or not is hard to assess from YouTube clips.
Regardless, Biden advances the modern trend of presidents not appearing smart – and shouldn’t our presidents be obviously superlative?
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.