It's How the President's Brain Is Wired That's Key

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One night during the '80s, I sat at a White House correspondents' dinner next to Richard Darman, a top Reagan operative who was said to be "the smartest man in Washington." He thought so, certainly.

Darman, to my astonishment, spent the evening telling me what an idiot Ronald Reagan was. Airhead. Dumbo. Darman's wife, according to her husband, would sneer at Reagan and roll her eyes that a man as smart as Dick could work for a guy as dumb as Bonzo.

Hmmm, I said. I filed Darman's remarks under the heading of contemptible candor.

Meantime, Reagan's chief of staff, John Sununu, was bragging around the town that HE was Mensa's gift to the art of government.

Either way, the Republic was safe. The geniuses Darman and Sununu worked the wires while the First Moron twinkled and told dumb jokes.

These memories are stirred by the persisting suspicion that, as long as the economy holds, the rather odd issue of George W. Bush's brainpower is going to be important in November. The fall presidential debates will be a critical test. Gore is undoubtedly smart, and ruthlessly nimble in the debate format. But if Bush stays loose, he may get off effective wing shots. Gore's style at the podium is not everyone's idea of a good time.

Try arranging past presidents in the smart-to-stupid scale, and see what you think of brains as an index of greatness, or even of competence. Clinton is among the half dozen smartest presidents America has had. That invites the question: So what? Clinton's predecessor, George W.'s father, was smart enough, though he had some of his son's trouble finishing sentences. He sometimes spoke, as his son does, in flywheel non-sequiturs. Jimmy Carter had (has) exceptional brains, of the engineer's kind. Nixon's rather powerful mind was undermined by the amorality and paranoia of his cunning. Lyndon Johnson had an exuberant, defective genius. John Kennedy: quick, shrewd, smart but missing something.

Brains are never enough. When I was a kid, my Washington journalist parents and their journalist friends condescended to Dwight Eisenhower as the fatuous golfer who read Zane Grey westerns and spoke in ridiculous anacoluthon — that syntactical incoherence for which he was famous. (Later, it was revealed that Eisenhower often spoke incoherently on purpose, in order to confuse the press. He thought it was funny. And he considered reporters to be a little stupid, a lesser breed.) Most of my parents' friends preferred Adlai Stevenson, the intellectual (who would have made a second-rate president). They did not inquire how a man as stupid as Ike managed to preside over the reconquest of Europe or, for that matter, over a pretty successful eight years in the White House.

Herodotus, in one of his wonderfully sweeping obiter dicta, stated that the stupidest people in the world come from the area around the Euxine Pontus (the Black Sea). There is a little Euxine Pontus in most presidents. Which president was the most Euxine? Warren Harding?

Intelligence undergoes strange transformations when it is connected to power. Even the brightest politicians may go Euxine. Take the case of Newt Gingrich, who was almost as smart as he thought he was; power made him stupid. A lot of dinner table talk these days — among Americans of either party — centers on whether George W. Bush is a little too dumb for the job. Then comes the afterthought: Gore isn't any prize either. These intuitions will sift and alter in the months ahead. Bush's hope lies in persuading people that he might have (as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said after meeting Franklin Roosevelt) "a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament." The election will be about many things — taxes, abortion, different attitudes toward government and so on. But among the large number of swing voters who will determine the outcome, the choice may be determined by a judgment made along the sliding scale between temperament and brains.