Years ago I went out to lunch with a friend who works at the Department of Homeland Security. She told me of a speech former president Bush gave to everyone to raise morale. She said it was an amazing off-the-cuff presentation that left many people in tears. She was blown away by how he spoke on national defense issues in private, but seemed exasperated with how he stumbled in public. My response? More on that later. For now, all you need to know is that George W. Bush is probably smarter than you.

Keith Hennessey writes:

I teach a class at Stanford Business School titled “Financial Crises in the U.S. and Europe.” During one class session while explaining the events of September 2008, I kept referring to the efforts of the threesome of Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner, who were joined at the hip in dealing with firm-specific problems as they arose.

One of my students asked “How involved was President Bush with what was going on?” I smiled and responded, “What you really mean is, ‘Was President Bush smart enough to understand what was going on,’ right?”

The class went dead silent. Everyone knew that this was the true meaning of the question. Kudos to that student for asking the hard question and for framing it so politely. I had stripped away that decorum and exposed the raw nerve.

I looked hard at the 60 MBA students and said “President Bush is smarter than almost every one of you.”

You do not get to be the president by being dumb. It just doesn’t happen. As much as people would like to think that, it’s just not really true. Many smart people come off as dumb because they lack common sense or they fundamentally misunderstand human nature or because they’re socially awkward or too narcissistic to change course when presented with evidence contrary to their world view. There are many other reasons someone could seem dumb (one of which I’ll cover below) but the President of the United States is not going to be lacking in raw intelligence. At least historically. Moving forward, that’s another question.

Hennessey continues:

For more than six years it was my job to help educate President Bush about complex economic policy issues and to get decisions from him on impossibly hard policy choices. In meetings and in the briefing materials we gave him in advance we covered issues in far more depth than I have been discussing with you [students] this quarter because we needed to do so for him to make decisions.

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. It was occasionally a little embarrassing when he would jump ahead of one of his Cabinet secretaries in a policy discussion and the advisor would struggle to catch up. He would sometimes force us to accelerate through policy presentations because he so quickly grasped what we were presenting.

I use words like briefing and presentation to describe our policy meetings with him, but those are inaccurate. Every meeting was a dialogue, and you had to be ready at all times to be grilled by him and to defend both your analysis and your recommendation. That was scary.

So why was Bush perceived as a dunce? As Mr. Hennessey points out, “Every prominent politician has a public caricature, one drawn initially by late-night comedy joke writers and shaped heavily by the press and one’s political opponents.”

Back to my friend from Homeland Security. I told her at the time that if you knew that every single word you said was being recorded, and that the press was looking for any little misstep or verbal hiccup to paste it into an existing narrative of you as an idiot, you’d be a little self conscious about it. I consider myself an intellectually nimble guy, but I’ve said some really dumb things in front of my wife, my family and my friends. Had those brain farts been recorded, guys like Stephen Colbert would easily be able to put together a montage that would make me out to be a chump. But would that make it true? Of course not.

Remember when President Obama said he had been to “57 states … with one left to go” or when he referred to a Marine “corpse man”? I do. There are plenty of Obama gaffes out there, but the media has decided that he’s “the perfect American”. And so, the narrative will be created, come hell or high water.

The challenge for Americans is to see through media spin, and people who are intellectually honest with themselves can do so.

I’ve heard conservative acquaintances of mines say that Obama is dumb. Really? Obama is dumb? That’s what liberals did with Bush. He was the dumbest guy on the face of the planet, but yet he was capable of pulling off “x” number of objectives that only a cunning man could accomplish.

In the Clinton biography “First in His Class,” (which I don’t suggest reading unless you want to know how Clinton’s peanut butter and jelly making skills as a child indicated he’d one day be president), David Maraniss notes that in law school Clinton would have been considered a ‘C’ student, had he been subjected to a traditional grading scale. Is Clinton a man of ‘C’ intelligence? No. Everyone knows what Clinton’s problems are…

George Bush always said he didn’t care about his legacy because history would be his judge. He’s right. Over time, the caricatures of presidents made by the media fade away, and are instead replaced with the picture historians paint. The real evidence of Bush’s legacy is spread out before us, and it will be up to serious academics and researchers to put the puzzle together. History will be much more kind to President Bush than his modern day critics ever were. He’s no Calivin Coolidge … but he is, as President Obama said at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library, “a good man.”

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

16 comments

  1. Bush didn’t hang out in Chicago bathhouses or use interns as humidors. That alone makes him smarter (and more of a man) than 2 other bozos I could mention.

  2. Exactly right. Although I consider myself to be fairly intelligent, I’ve also said my share of dumb things before (haven’t we all?) and I know that if someone had recorded them and put it on YouTube, people would have a field day with it.

    1. People like to pretend they’re the smartest guy in the room. Finding someone like Bush and doing the whole, “Heh! Dummy!” thing for eight years made them feel good about themselves, I guess.

  3. Back to Prof. Darry Sragow and others of his ilk. Young people have been brainwashed for years now that Republicans are all “old, white, stupid racists.” Say it enough times, and people will believe it without questioning the source or the agenda.

  4. Mr. Douglas, whether or not Bush 43 was smart or not, he certainly messed the country up really badly. He only got to be POTUS because of his family name. Just Iraq alone is enough to class him as very dumb. I was in grad schl during the run up to the 2003 invasion and just me and my friends who cared enough to discuss and debate the WMD issue figured out it was a LIE.

    But then sometimes lying takes a lot of smarts.

    1. You’re right. Even though Saddam used chemical weapons on his own people and even though I can run down a long list of Democrats (prior to Bush) who said the same thing … and even though British, German, Russian, French, Israeli and many other intelligence agencies believed the same thing … it was a lie. In your little graduate school world do you really think that intelligence agencies are 100% sure of anything when they’re dealing with police states, dictatorial regimes, or terrorist cells?

      Get serious.

  5. Oh, I’m serious. The millions of people protesting on the streets against the invasion BEFORE it happened were smart enough for me. If Bush 43 was so smart he should have been able to see the flawed intelligence.

    Chemical weapons Iraq used against Iran and his own people were supplied by the West, especially Germany and France. The US supplied the satellite imagery for the targeting. Such hypocrisy is what made so many ordinary people smell a rat. Millions of people were SMART ENOUGH to see through all the LIES that were being told to get America into an unjust war. Bush 43 just wasn’t smart enough.

    Tell the smart Bush 43 story to the ~ 5000 dead and tens of thousands of permanently maimed US servicemen whose lives were ruined just to chase down WMD’s that Bush wasn’t smart enough to know weren’t there. That’s the disastrous consequences of the Bush 43 brand of smartness.

    Enough of the Bush 43 rewrites please. His failures played out in the full glare of the information age. If this was 50yrs ago when sources of information were very limited, it would be possible to do some hagiography. At least wait a generation or two, maybe a disaster will happen and wipe out all the info on the debates that happened BEFORE the first shots were fired.

    The man was a disaster for our country. If he qualifies as smart then I’d rather have a stupid POTUS.

    1. You’re missing the point. Bush just didn’t care about the consequences that bother you. He was interested in the financial bottom lines for himself and his friends, and he was interested in moving World War III out of the United States. That’s it. He couldn’t care less about Iraqi civilians who die in drone strikes — he makes jokes to himself and his friends that dehumanize all enemies, and moves on with his life. Bush can be smart and do terrible things simultaneously, because smart people can lie.

    1. It’s like someone locked you in a ‘Clockwork Orange’ type of room and made you watch Janeane Garofalo until your brain melted into a pile of Garofal-goo. Classic.

  6. Oh no, why the insults? Who is Jeane Garofalo? I don’t recognize the name. I’ll stick to the the issue I raised that proves that Bush 43 isn’t smart – he didn’t recognize that the intelligence being presented to him was faked, wrong or manufactured to fit a desired outcome, which was the invasion of Iraq.

    Yes, Iraq had chemical weapons when it used them against Iran and the Kurds. After that, at least by the time UN inspectors were there as part of post Gulf War Sanctions, there were no more WMD’s, whether nuclear, chemical or bio. One of the top Americans on the UN team told us as much. Scott Ritter is his name.

    If Iraq had any WMD in 2003, US forces would have found them after the war. They found NOTHING, nothing at all. Which means Iraq had no WMD’s.

    Anyway, this is just one issue. Notice also that I didn’t insult Bush 43 or caricature him in any way and that’s because I’m sure that like any other human being he has his good side. My perception of his intelligence or lack of it is based STRICTLY on the OUTCOMES of HIS DECISIONS…..aside from the fact that he ascended to the Oval Office on his family name, not merit. It’s not his fault that he was born to privilege, that’s life. The evidence is that Bush 43 is not smarter than most Americans, thousands of whom have had to pay the ultimate price for his decisions on Iraq.

    1. So by your own definition of intelligence Obama is an idiot because he signed NDAA into law. How does indefinite detention suit you? And Obama expanded Bush’s drone program to now include killing American citizens overseas. And Gitmo is still open for business.

      You might want to reevaluate your litmus test for intelligence and try less Monday morning quarterbacking. Just a thought.

  7. Where does Obama come into this? Please don’t assume I’m an Obama supporter or liberal or Democrat. I was assessing the smarts of Bush 43 compared to that of millions of Americans who opposed the Iraqi War he launched in 2003.

    The debates and arguments in the public domain BEFORE the Iraqi War can still be sourced on the internet. I’m NOT using any after the fact rationalization.

    Litmus test? LOL…..there are many examples of decisions that show his lack of smarts, I just chose one for which the evidence is very clear AND intellectually accessible to those of us with merely average intelligence.

    1. ..to those of us with merely average intelligence

      All hail the anonymous guy of ‘merely average intelligence.’ I wish you well on your anonymous travels. Go find out who Janeane Garofalo is. I think you’ll find the two of you are kindred spirits.

  8. I agree that George Bush plays dumb, but so does Obama — e.g., that “57” states comment, viewed in context, was obviously a joke about the absurd amount of traveling that he had been doing.

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