Fuzzy Math and Verbage

How smart should a president be? William F. Buckley famously said he’d “rather be ruled by the first 500 people in the Boston phonebook than the faculty at Harvard University,” and there’s surely something to that, though the worst president in American history was a Princeton man.

Here’s an interesting graph comparing presidential success with presidential IQ. (Explanation here) (Hat tip: Marian Tupy).

It’s a fun conversation piece, but it doesn’t tell you much. First of all, all the conventional rankings dramatically downgrade “do-nothing” presidents, so the version of presidential greatness used is always going to overvalue drama, explosions, and ambitious plans to remake the country and the world. Note that here, once again, Warren G. Harding is the Rodney Dangerfield of presidents, ranked dead last despite his admirable record on separation of powers, size of government, and civil liberties.

Moreover, the IQ data is highly dubious, especially the farther back you go in history, where it appears to be based on presidential biographies and personal papers, rather than standardized tests from college or military service. When I first looked at the graph, I wondered how they’d concluded that JFK, who was basically the Irish mob version of A.J. Soprano, was smarter than John Adams and James Madison. It turns out, according to JFK biographer Thomas Reeves, that “Kennedy was actually given an IQ test before entering Choate. His score was 119,” much lower than what he’s assessed at here.

In any event, given the difficulties of assessing IQ from a distance of generations, and the contentious nature of presidential greatness, it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions about the relationship between intelligence and presidential “success.”

However, too many conservatives, it seems to me, are too quick to conclude that brains don’t matter much when we’re choosing a constitutional chief executive. The reasoning seems to be: Jimmy Carter was smart, and he was a bad president; Reagan went to Eureka College and the intelligentsia sneered at him, yet he was a good president. Therefore, we should count ourselves lucky if and when we get George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. This sells Reagan short (and Carter too?): Reagan wasn’t an intellectual, but he was interested in ideas, and anyone who’s tried to write opeds and has seen Reagan’s handwritten 1970s radio speeches, for example, knows that he was a sharp guy and a smart writer. His success certainly doesn’t mean that unremarkable intelligence and lack of intellectual curiousity are virtues when it comes to the office of the presidency.

But some come close to concluding that they are virtues. See, for example, Charles Murray in this Sunday’s New York Times magazine:

What do you think of Sarah Palin? I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love.

Why is the McCain clan so eager to advertise its anti-intellectualism? The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government. Probably the smartest president we’ve had in terms of I.Q. in the last 50 years was Jimmy Carter, and I think he is the worst president of the last 50 years.

Yes, some presidents can be too smart for their own good (though I seriously doubt that was Carter’s problem). But that doesn’t mean that when selecting potential presidents we ought to seek out people who aren’t particularly bright. God, I never thought I’d say this, but maybe Charles Murray isn’t enough of an intellectual elitist.

Posted on Sep 23, 2008 in Conservatism, Cult of the Presidency, Libertarianism | Comments

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