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.
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.”