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Is He Stupid?

My article, "The Brains Thing" has gotten a lot of play in the liberal blogosphere, which is great. It's also attracted some criticism which is worth discussing.

What I've found interesting is that no one I've seen (though maybe I'm missing someone, I can't see everything, and please bring alternatives to my attention) has contradicted my main thesis -- namely that intelligence matters. That, I think, is a heartening development. There's always going to be political dispute in this country, including dispute about who is and is not, in fact, intelligent. That's fine. What I think is not fine is the proclivity of many conservatives to dispute that intelligence matters. If people want to agree that intelligence matters and claim that Bush is, in fact, intelligent, then I consider that progress. But several people I've seen disagree with the premise that Bush is unintelligent.

Obviously, I can't prove that the guy is dumb, though I think his dumbness was amply on display during his Larry King Live interview as well as on other occassions when he's been subjected to more rigorous questioning. My main research method, however, was merely to see how many prominent conservatives seemed willing to concede that Bush was dumb (although often not in quite so many words) and argue that he was worth supporting anyway. Some examples:

  • The late Robert Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal editorial page said during the 2000 campaign that Bush's dumbness was compensated for by the fact that (a) he would have advisors, and (b) unlike many other politicians, he knew his limits and wasn't afraid to admit he'd be reliant on them.
  • George Will, columnist for The Washington Post wrote several times during the 2000 campaign about Bush's lack of "gravitas" as a problem and said that Dick Cheney's presence on the ticket reassured him.
  • David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times wrote on the "civil war in the educated class" and explained that more knowledge-oriented people didn't like Bush because he wasn't very smart, while practical-minded people liked Bush because he was straightforward and punctual.
  • Max Boot, columnist for The Los Angeles Times wrote (and I quote him in the article) that liberals like cleverness and conservatives like character, and that's why liberals don't like Bush and conservatives don't like Clinton.
  • The Weekly Standard published an article by Joel Engel with roughly the reverse thesis of mine -- that liberals had created an unwarranted cult of intelligence, and that in the real world Bush's lack of intelligence is unimportant compared to his possession of "common sense."
So there you have the premiere conservative columnists for the nation's four most prominent newspapers as well as one of the two major conservative magazines accepting the Bush-as-unintelligent premise but disputing the it's-a-bad-thing conclusion. That, I think, gives one prima facie license to proceed as I did, simply accept the shared assumption, and engage in a dispute about whether or not it matters.

In terms of empirical evidence of stupidity, aside from personal observation of Bush's appearances, we have:

  • The account of Paul O'Neil and Christie Whitman in The Price of Loyalty of Bush as disengaged, ill-informed, and not very interested in learning more.
  • The documents provided by the above to Ron Suskind, including the one I quote, which reveal a White House staff expressing the view that the president is easily manipulated by whoever gives him his verbal briefings, and other such indications that he doesn't really understand policy arguments or have the capacity to learn about them.
  • David Frum's contention in The Right Man that Bush is an "unusual" sort of heavyweight, one whose heavyweightness derives from his grasping of a couple broad principles, and not a typical sort of heavyweight who remembers things, can articulate his ideas, or who can process and analyze details.
Of the above named, some are very sympathetic to George W. Bush, some somewhat less so, but none of them are ideologically predisposed toward Bush hatred or to dismissing him out of hand. All, I believe, are currently supporting his reelection.

Now it's possible that one could say that the sorts of things I'm talking about -- basically, the ability to understand policy arguments and reach informed opinions on policy disputes -- aren't the same as intelligence per se. Clearly, they're not the be-all and end-all of intelligence, though I would argue that they derive from basic intelligence. Either way, though, if you don't want to call that cluster of characteristics "intelligence" and prefer to call it "Property X," I wouldn't mind. The point, then, is not that "intelligence" matters, but that "Property X," which the most prominent conservative observers and many veterans of the Bush White House appear to agree the president lacks, is an important property for a president to have.

August 18, 2004 | Permalink


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Tracked on Oct 7, 2005 12:00:17 AM


Given that there are many qualities that can (and can't) be measured as "intelligence", we have to look at the empirical data. The statements of Bush (including 'bushisms") don't seem to reveal much comlexity (though admittedly, there are complex forms of stupidity. See Groupthink.) The record is dimal, given the results in the real world. The 'common sense' or 'common touch' that some conservative commentators see seems to be almost instinctive, chameleonlike adaptation. 'Low cunning' is more like it...

Posted by: Mr. Bill | Aug 18, 2004 5:04:28 PM

uhh 'complexity' and 'dismal'.... carry on..

Posted by: Mr. Bill | Aug 18, 2004 5:09:54 PM

It's not that Bush is stupid. As President Clinton said, he's got good "emotional intelligence." It's that he doesn't think things through.

Bush has been a poor President for the same reason he was a poor businessman: he's never been confronted with the consequences of failure. Every time he failed in business, his dad's friends bailed him out. They still are, in politics: Karl Rove and the excellent RNC PR apparatus are working overtime to cover up and spin his mistakes.

As a result, Bush makes decisions based on instinct rather than careful analysis. This doesn't work very well. He reminds me of Tim Draper, another moneyed, privileged scion who screws up a lot. Contrast Draper's blue-chip pedigree and results with that of Jeff Osborn, an entrepreneur who made his own money, and you see why Bush is having trouble...

Draper is a third-generation investment banker who runs Draper Fisher Jurvetson, one of the biggest venture capital firms in the world. He has a blue-chip educational pedigree: Andover, Stanford, and Harvard Business School. He says inspiring things like, "What we look for are heroes … people who are going to change the world."

Jeff Osborn, on the other hand, has only a B.A. from Trinity College. In 1991 he started a company called Wilder Systems, maxed out all his credit cards to fund it, then went personally bankrupt when it tanked. He says dispiriting things like, "If you are doing it right, starting a company is a really grinding proposition."

Draper lost more than $200 million betting on now-defunct dot-coms, such as Product Pop and InfoRocket.com. If you invested a dollar with him in 1998, you'd have a quarter now.

Osborn, after his first startup went belly-up, made $10 million as one of the principals at UUNet. His venture firm, Osborn Capital, turned $3 million into $100 million. If you invested a buck with him in 1998, you'd have $35 now.

If Bush had suffered when his first company went under, he'd make decisions more like Osborn, the country would be in much better shape, and few would think him stupid.

As it is, he makes decisions more like Draper, the country's a mess, and "stupid is as stupid does."

Posted by: Chris Charuhas | Aug 18, 2004 5:13:28 PM

Here's an alternate theory: Bush is of roughly normal intelligence, perhaps a bit higher, but is also very lazy. He does not want to make the effort to understand the complexities of the world. And he has been rewarded for his lack of effort. The whole 'Bush is dumb, but it's okay' meme from conservative columnists is simply an attempt to cover for Bush. If he's just dumb, then it isn't his fault that he's dumb.

Posted by: VKW | Aug 18, 2004 5:15:57 PM

And let's remember he only had to be smarter than Gore. And heck, his SAT score was higher, whatever that's worth.

Posted by: Chad | Aug 18, 2004 5:18:33 PM

"basically, the ability to understand policy arguments and reach informed opinions on policy disputes"

Evidence out of Texas that I remember of clemency cases was that Bush would have summaries read to him and decide. My gut feeling is that he makes his decisions based on his assessment of the person making the argument, and that Bush believes his "people skills" are so acute that this will result in good policy.

If the man was a great orator or demagague like Huey Long...what does he have going for him? What exceptional qualities, or even average assets, does he have? Simply astonishing that this guy became President.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 18, 2004 5:29:05 PM

Bush is of roughly normal intelligence, perhaps a bit higher, but is also very lazy.

Stupidity is not one of the seven deadly sins.

Laziness is.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Aug 18, 2004 5:43:27 PM

I think that Bush deliberately goes for the stupid vote. "He's a regular guy like us because the smart guys shit on him too."

Matt's piece didn't hurt Bush with his core constituency, though it should hurt him among the tiny if not mythical "Republican grownup" demographic. I really think that, rather than beg the smart Republicans to abandon Bush, we should explain to them the devastating consequences that support of Bush will have on their reputations. Throw some tough love kind of shit their way.

Moron troll shits point out that Bush did well on IQ tests and went to top schools. Legacy admission aside, this is a reminder that IQ is not really what's in question here. Laziness, incuriosity, self-indulgence, cockiness, anti-intellectualism, macho, and devout (albeit self-serving) religious belief have created a moron-equivalent. He had to work on it; it didn't come naturally to him.

Trudeau of Doonesbury, who knew Dubya at Yale, says that he was a master of bullying, manipulation, flattery, teasing, etc. You see that in the way he treats the press corps. The so-called "emotional intelligence".

(Did I ever mention that I have no emotional intelligence? My networking skills are zero, and it's not just because I say "shit" and "moron" a lot. To me emotional intelligence seems to be a dubious virtue indeed, but I guess that's just me.)

Posted by: Al | Aug 18, 2004 5:56:31 PM

That was the fake Al, obviously. But the real Al, i.e. me, doesn't have any emotional intelligence either.

Posted by: Real Al | Aug 18, 2004 5:58:19 PM

Al, you will be wanting to change your tag to one with a less tainted past.

Posted by: EH | Aug 18, 2004 6:10:34 PM

I'm not sure that he is stupid. He is intellectually lazy-has no curiousity. It does bother me that he doesn't read, that he never traveled. I just think that if his last name wasn't Bush, he would not be in the White House. And that bothers me.

I also believe that he relies on his advisors. I had this discussion with my brother before the 2000 election. I raised the point that he didn't seem to know much about foreign policy. And my brother said that he had advisors to help with information. But what happens when those advisors disagree? I just don't think that he's presidential material.

Posted by: Susan C | Aug 18, 2004 6:25:35 PM

He's stupid! Of course he's fucking stupid! Look at him! Listen to him!

If you met the guy on the street (or more likely, in a bar), you would think, "that guy's nice enough, but man he's not too bright."

Just because he's the president, don't distrust the overwhelming and unequivocal voice of your own judgement. He is stupid.

Posted by: Realish | Aug 18, 2004 6:47:07 PM

A person being stupid is one thing, but that the media allows someone with, at best, a lack of qualifications to pass as someone able to be president.

Posted by: MattB | Aug 18, 2004 6:52:29 PM

smart, average, stupid...whatever. More importantly, he's staggeringly incompetent.

Posted by: ed | Aug 18, 2004 6:59:51 PM

Gore's SATs were higher, fyi.

Posted by: MattB | Aug 18, 2004 7:03:59 PM

Chris' post above was well thought out and seems true but I don't think "he's never been confronted with the consequences of failure" is enough to explain Bush's behavior/decisionmaking style. I think Chris' idea and a combination of attention deficit disorder and some type of dyslexia are also key in understanding our president.

Whether you support him or not, one has to admit that he is one quirky hombre. I thought more should have been made of the time he told Putin there was no need to put anything in writing regarding the missile treaty. I mean wtf? And, this having to be in bed by 10:30 every night. Remember his trip to Russia where his buddy Putin was so looking forward to showing off St. Petersburg at night? He wanted to take Bush cruising along the canals at midnight, had all these arrangements made, and George said sorry, I'll be in bed by 10:30? And, more recently, do you think someone convinced him to advocate a nuclear deterrance plan that no longer includes on site verification or was this his own idea? I can understand, though not approve of, his hawkish, our way or the highway stuff, but occasionally he just plain shocks me. The man really needs a short leash.

Posted by: karol | Aug 18, 2004 7:09:28 PM

Al, you will be wanting to change your tag to one with a less tainted past.

I've gone through that... It's my real name, and I'm not giving it up! But thanks for your thoughts (hehe).

A few comments:

1. Matthew ignores the arguments that Gore and Kerry aren't any smarter than Bush. I'm taking that to mean he doesn't have any evidence with which to refute such arguments. So this is really all beside the point - Gore or Bush, Kerry or Bush, what the difference? None.

2. Matthew doesn't provide links so that we can check for ourselves what Brooks, Will, Boot, et al actually wrote. Given that the etiquette of the blogosphere is to provide such links unless you are deliberately trying to hide the actual writing, I'm taking that to mean that Matthew's paraphrases are wildly inaccurate.

3. Matthew also doesn't address the issue that some of our most "intelligent" (using the word in the way that Matthew wants) also turned out to be very bad Presidents. The Carter example comes to mind. So intelligence is not necessarily directly correlated with "being a good President". Indeed, probably the most we can say is that it takes a threshold amount of intelligence to be a good President, and anything over that is not relevant. Perhaps it is the case that Bush doesn't meet the threshold; I dunno. But Matthew unfortunately doesn't present an argument about what the threshold is, and why Bush doesn't meet it.

Posted by: Al (The Real One) | Aug 18, 2004 7:22:54 PM

Reagan indubitably had no edge on Bush in the "basic intelligence" category, and I find pretty doubtful that he had an edge in "ability to understand policy arguments and reach informed opinions on policy disputes," and he supposedly "conserved the Johnson revolution" and did various other things that you've said you admire, but whatever.

Posted by: spacetoast | Aug 18, 2004 7:34:23 PM

While Reagan may not have beaten Bush in terms of raw intellectual potential, he certainly did so in terms of intellectual engagement--he read voraciously, he produced volumes of correspondance, he wrote some of his own speeches. He was interested in the outside world, and though not an intellectual himself, he respected intellectual thought. GWB, on the other hand, stretches his mind just far enough to plan his 2004 Inaugural Gala. He openly mocks people who think, and is perhaps the most intellectually disengaged president since... Coolidge? Hell, even Ford read his Daily Briefings.

Posted by: Maureen | Aug 18, 2004 8:19:58 PM

"very bad Presidents. The Carter example comes to mind."

Well, I will dispute this, as there may be category of Presidents who just had very bad luck.
Hoover, Carter, and perhaps the present dude. I think Bush has had bad luck, and is utterly incompetent, but historians will have their own way. Carter is criticized too much on the cheap by people who say yup, no sweat, invade Iran and free the hostages.

And Presidents like Coolidge, Eisenhower and Clinton who had good luck are probably overpraised.

"taking that to mean that Matthew's paraphrases are wildly inaccurate."

I can vouch for the Engel and Weekly Standard. Google it yourelf.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Aug 18, 2004 8:41:33 PM


Max Boot may be right that liberals like cleverness and conservatives like character, but Bush has neither.

Bush thinks Jesus saved him from the character flaw, drunkeness. Well I know drunks, and Bush claims to have given it up 10 years after a drunk driving conviction. He undoubtedly drove drunk after that conviction if he took ten more years to give it up. That is not character.

It is one thing to avoid service in the Vietnam war while supporting others' going, but to fail to do his duty be missing a physical that was required to keep flying, shows no character.

Mr. Boot should be advised that liberals like learning, and conservatives like TALKING about character. Liberals take conservatives to task over character less because they are less hypocritical.

Bush's drunk driving, failure to do his duty in the National Guard, etc. were much less bandied about than Clinton's (personal) sex life, which, as the court records show, was consensual.

And, as Laura Bush takes the stage to urge the re-election of her husband, he of high moral character, I await the vicious vetting of her killing of her young friend by auto accident, like we have seen from the conservatives regarding Edward Kennedy's killing of Kopechne.

Posted by: epistemology | Aug 18, 2004 8:58:57 PM

Modest intellegence + 20 years of alcaholism and cocaine abuse = befuddlement

Posted by: Luke Lea | Aug 18, 2004 8:59:17 PM

Best Presidents of my lifetime:
1. Ronald Reagan
2. George W. Bush
3. George H.W. Bush
4. Gerald Ford
5. Bill Clinton
6. Richard Nixon
7. Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter is worse than the two who set the Presidency back decades - Nixon and Clinton. Carter didn't have bad luck. He sucked. Go back and watch his speeches and be very afraid.

David McCullough (Truman, John Adams) said in an interview recently that what is remembered about a President is what is left after the personality is washed away. He was asked what Clinton will be remembered for and he answered 'That he was impeached.' There you have it.

The article and comments continue to spread disinformation and urban mythology, so it's very apparent that the readers calling Bush stupid are, in fact, exactly that. Grow up.

You guys are like the Pharoahs, so much inbreeding and yet you think you are still royalty. When Dubya wins in a landslide (think Bush 53.5, Kerry 43.5, Nader 3), you'll probably be wondering what happened?

Posted by: Larry | Aug 18, 2004 9:20:43 PM

"When Dubya wins in a landslide (think Bush 53.5, Kerry 43.5, Nader 3), you'll probably be wondering what happened?"

It could happen. Anything is possible. But what does winning prove about Bush's brains, or character, or anything else? I can't help but notice that the one Republican President you rank below Bill Clinton--Richard Nixon--was re-elected with 61% of the vote.Did that make Nixon a brilliant guy or a paragon of integrity?

Posted by: Angry Blue Planet | Aug 18, 2004 9:33:04 PM

Let's consult the infinite wisdom of the Medium Lobster, shall we?

"America doesn't need a President to lead them; America needs a President who projects leadership. America doesn't need a President who's honest with his country; America needs a President who's honest with his wife. America doesn't need a President with a firm grasp of policy and a commitment to serving his country; America needs a President with the appearance of irrepressible optimism and Wholesome Heartland Values. America doesn't need a capable wartime President; America needs a President who makes himself look like war."

Posted by: praktike | Aug 18, 2004 9:38:01 PM

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