Smart Presidents

A friend is taking a class in psychology through the local college. It seems that while discussing the subject of IQ tests, the professor told her class (which included my friend) that Bill Clinton had an IQ of 187 and George W. Bush has an IQ of 95.

My bullshit detector immediately began to register a signal. Leave aside the obvious political bias inherent in such a statement. (Would a Republican repeat such a statement, even if it were true?) If a politician had an IQ of 95, which is by definition lower than average what possible reason could he have to release that information to the public? And if another politician had an IQ of 187, that would make him by definition one of the smartest men in all of America, if not the world. Maybe there are 187 IQ people out there, and yes, Bill Clinton is a pretty smart guy. But he didn’t strike me as being that smart.

Fortunately, this was hardly the first time this particular concept had been articulated and like most urban myths, it has been reduced to a chain e-mail and from there analyzed by the good folks at They confirm that it is indeed a hoax. The e-mail from which the professor may well have taken her rumor is even more politically slanted than the false statement she told her class.

I’m not an egalitarian about such matters; I do think that there is such a thing as intelligence and that some people have more of it than others. now, I’m going to assume, for purposes of this post, that IQ is really the same thing as intelligence and that the IQ test more or less accurately measures this quality of a person. I am not sure that ultimately I agree with that assumption, but I’ll dispense with that issue for now.

The e-mail, rumor, and meme embodied in this statement fits in to a political myth — a concept I’ve been mulling about in my mind for a few days — in this case the myth of “Smart Democrat, Dumb Republican.” More on that subject in a few days, as I develop my thoughts further. For now, it suffices to note that this is far from the first time that the completely unfounded idea that whatever Democrat is competing with whatever Republican for the White House is smarter than the GOP’s choice — implying, in turn, that Democrats are smarter than Republicans. This flatters Democrats and insults Republicans, but its coincidence with the truth will probably happen no more often than chance would have it be so.

You’re seeing it play out now in the 2008 election — Barack Obama is smarter than John McCain, and therefore you should vote for Obama. Well, I think they’re both pretty intelligent guys. Obama’s educational credentials are extremely impressive. Editor of Harvard Law Review is not something you get from affirmative action; it is not something you get for being merely above average. But McCain got into and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, which I for one find an impressive credential. If young John McCain had been actually dumb, or even of only average intelligence, I rather doubt that Annapolis would have taken him no matter who his dad was. No one cakewalks through Annapolis (or West Point); there are no “social promotions” and Senators’ sons and Admirals’ sons have washed out of Annapolis.

Now, no matter how good it is, Annapolis isn’t Harvard Law School and Obama’s grades seem to have been better than McCain’s, and McCain does not hold a graduate degree the way Obama does. So maybe Barack Obama is smarter than John McCain — but that shouldn’t be the question. The question should be “Is the candidate smart enough to competently discharge the office of President?” For both McCain and Obama, the answer is pretty clearly “yes.”

And if smarts were all that it took to be a good President, then shouldn’t we have seen four years of bright economic growth, adroit foreign policy, and a cultural Renaissance under nuclear physicist (and Annapolis grad) Jimmy Carter? Indeed, if Carter was so smart, how come he got thrown out of office by alleged dunderhead Ronald Reagan?

The “dumb Republican” myth seems to permit that from time to time, a Republican can be smart. Usually this refers to the blindingly obvious intelligence of Richard Nixon — the subtext being that the only way for a Republican to be smart is to be an Evil Genius. Maybe Nixon was evil, maybe he was a genius. I think he was neither. Misguided, I’d agree with. Consumed by his own ego, I’d get on board that train. I might even be talked into calling him a sociopath. But “evil?” No — evil requires a conscious intent to harm, it requires malice. Nixon in all likelihood thought that most of what he did, he did in an effort to advance the moral good, and as for the other stuff, well, that just wasn’t something that had any real moral gravity one way or another because it’s no more immoral to eat pancakes than waffles for breakfast, right? That could be how he saw decisions like what to do about Vietnam, whether or not to get his guys to play dirty tricks with elections, and how he saw formulating electoral strategies that involved appealing to the racism of southern whites. Like I say, if you said, “Nixon was a sociopath,” I might agree with that. Or not; I think he saw his diplomatic efforts to China as morally good; I think he imposed wage and price controls because he thought it was the right thing to do for poor people. I don’t think he was corrupt in the sense that he took overt bribes; Pat would have had a fur coat instead of a cloth one if he did.

And as for being a genius, well, maybe; he was clearly a really smart guy. But “genius” should indicate someone of exceptional and highly unusual intelligence. Was Nixon smarter than Humphrey? Was he smarter than Kennedy? Who’s to say, really?

We haven’t a clue what the IQ of any Presidents are, nor should we particularly care beyond the point that the person in question demonstrates intellectual capability sufficient to understand and evaluate public policies. I would venture to guess that the threshold for that is something on the order of “above average,” but less than “significantly above average.” There is no indication that any President in living memory has lacked that ability. Perhaps that’s because in order to get to be President, you have to climb to the top of the very competitive profession of politics, which means you have to be pretty smart in the first place. Dumb politicians lack the ability to do the things necessary to reach high office.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.