In the first volume of his magnificent three-tome biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris recounts the story of writer Owen Wister’s visit to the Roosevelt White House. Wister, a Harvard classmate of the president, “has lent [Roosevelt] a book shortly before a full evening’s entertainment at the White House, and been astonished to hear a complete review of it over breakfast. ‘Somewhere between six one evening and eight-thirty the next morning, beside his dressing and his dinner and his guests and his sleep, he had read a volume of three-hundred-and-odd pages, and missed nothing of significance.’”
For those unconvinced of Teddy’s erudition, Morris glances over the president’s reading list:
In the past year alone, Roosevelt has devoured all the novels of Trollope, the complete works of De Quincey, a Life of Saint Patrick, the prose works of Milton and Tacitus (“until I could stand them no longer”), Samuel Dill’s Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, the seafaring yarns of Jacobs, the poetry of Scott, Poe, and Longfellow, a German novel called Jörn Uhl, “a most satisfactorily lurid Man-eating Lion story,” and Foulke’s Life of Oliver P. Morton, not to mention at least five hundred other volumes, on subjects ranging from tropical flora to Italian naval history.
It seems safe to say that America’s 26th president was “smart.” But it was not he whom historian Michael Beschloss christened “probably the smartest guy ever to become president.” Nor was it John Adams, nor the famously learned Thomas Jefferson, nor Woodrow Wilson, the only Ph.D.-president. That title, of course, belongs to Barack Obama (B.A., Columbia; J.D., Harvard), whose intellect is the stuff of legend. Only a MENSA standout like him could state that, in columnist Jack Kelly’s pithy summation,
there are 57 states; Canada has a president; “Austrian” is a language; America is “20 centuries” old; Arabic is spoken in Afghanistan. He’s called the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) the Maldives, and declared it would be “unprecedented” for the Supreme Court to invalidate a law passed by Congress.
Well, even genius lapses.
Of course, none of these examples proves that Barack Obama is not intelligent. However much choom he might have inhaled, he was certainly eligible for the local gifted-and-talented classes, and he has two Ivy League degrees — which, for the moment, is still an accomplishment. He is assuredly not “the smartest guy ever to become president,” but he’s still out on the right-hand tail of the IQ bell curve.
One would do well to keep in mind Barack Obama’s intelligence (and its occasional hiccups) while reading Salon’s “The ‘Ted Cruz is smart’ trap: Why this garbage is false — and dangerous.” Author Nathan Robinson’s rigorous scientific analysis mocks Cruz for producing “angry pants-on-fire platitudinous drivel,” “using distortive, misleading rhetoric that no sober-minded individual could apply,” and reading Dr. Seuss.
Predictably, Nathan Robinson is certain Ted Cruz is not “smart” because Ted Cruz tends not to agree with Nathan Robinson.
Robinson is particularly alarmed by the report of David Panton, Cruz’s law-school roommate and college debate partner, who told The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin: “Ted’s views today politically are almost identical to when I met him. There’s nothing he says today that I didn’t hear in college.” “Ted Cruz,” Robinson declares, “does not in his life ever seem to have taken on board a single challenge to his worldview” — the implication of such a statement being that, if he had, he would have changed his mind. “[Panton’s] assessment, spoken about anybody,” writes Robinson, “should be convincing enough evidence for shallowness of mind.” No doubt a Ted Cruz who supported homosexual marriage, on-demand abortion, and a $15 minimum wage would appear to Salon writers much more intelligent.
Robinson’s essay is self-congratulation masquerading as high-minded critique, though that is not to say that all of his observations are wrong. Conservatives have long bemoaned the fact that educational institutions — even, and perhaps especially, elite ones — do not promote any “intelligence” that indicates more than good exam scores. As Robinson notes, where success is predicated upon relentless ambition, cultivation of a meaningful intelligence may fall by the wayside.
But the conclusion he draws from this is: Ted Cruz is not intelligent. Which is not just wrong, but indicative of the type of shallow thinking by which Robinson is purportedly disgusted.
Barack Obama and Ted Cruz (and Rand Paul and Mark Pryor and etc.) are, by any reasonable measure, intelligent men. But a cursory glance through the historical record proves that “intelligence” (whatever that means) and political competence do not necessarily correspond. In fact, enormously “intelligent” men were political dupes. Think Heidegger. Robinson’s is just another article perpetuating the political fetishization of intelligence, the liberal belief that if only our politicians were smarter, we could feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and repair the ozone layer, all with enough money left over to secure universal Head Start enrollment. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was promoting exactly the same belief when he absurdly suggested that “one-party autocracy” is not a bad gig provided it is “led by a reasonably enlightened group of people.” “Enlightened” — that is, smart; that is, like Thomas Friedman, not one of those bumpkins the hoi polloi usually go in for. Modern liberalism believes that there is an answer to every question and a solution to every problem — that is, provided someone smart enough is in charge. But the reality is that there is no brain in the world big enough for the task.
None of which is to say that there is not a requisite level of intelligence for managing the affairs of state. But the general irrelevance of intelligence as a measure of political competence suggests that voters would do better to scrutinize candidates’ other qualities — loyalty, humility, common sense — over the density of their gray matter.
Then again, a closer look at Joe Biden’s report card may not have been a bad idea.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.