Although neither group likes to say so, some Americans who support President Bush and many who don’t support him have concluded over four years that he may not be very bright. This suspicion was not allayed by Bush’s answers in the first presidential debate a week ago.
Even Bush’s most engaged critics shy away from publicly challenging his intelligence for many reasons, most of them good. To raise the issue seems snooty and elitist. This is an image no American wants because seeming snooty is even worse than seeming stupid. Just ask Bush’s opponent, Sen. John Kerry. Furthermore, the concept of brainpower or IQ as a single, measurable trait is generally, though not universally, rejected by scientists. And the obsession with IQ has been responsible for all sorts of political mischief.
Then there is Ronald Reagan. We know now that he had incipient Alzheimer’s for at least part of his presidency. Many of his supporters at the time and even more of his retrospective admirers acknowledge that he was a few jelly beans short of a jar. But he was a spectacularly successful politician anyway, and many believe he was more than that: one of America’s greatest leaders.
The smartest candidate is not necessarily the best candidate. The candidate’s belief system and character matter more. Similarly, the smartest surgeon is not necessarily the best surgeon. But if all you knew about two surgeons was that one was smarter than the other, there’s not much question which one you’d pick for your operation.
Actually, we would not frame the question as one of abstract brainpower, a dubious concept. You don’t go through America’s top schools, serve as governor of a major state and occupy the presidency with even mixed results if you’re not reasonably smart, no matter how thoroughly your way is eased by others.
The issue might better be described as one of mental laziness.
Does this man think through his beliefs before they harden into unwavering principles? Is he open to countervailing evidence? Does he test his beliefs against new evidence and outside argument? Does his understanding of a subject go any deeper than the minimum amount needed for public display? Is he intellectually curious? Does he try to reconcile his beliefs on one subject with his beliefs on another?
It’s bad if a president is incapable of the abstract thought necessary for these mental exercises. If he is capable and isn’t even trying, that’s worse. It becomes a question of character. When a president sends thousands of young Americans to kill and die halfway around the world, thinking about it as hard and as honestly as possible is the least he can do.
Bush’s Iraq policy is full of contradictions, often rehearsed on this page and elsewhere. But so is Kerry’s. It isn’t routine political mendacity that makes many people -- many more than will admit it -- wonder about Bush’s mental engagement. It is a combination of things: his stumbling inarticulateness, the efforts his advisors make to protect him from unscripted exposure, his extreme reluctance to rethink anything.
Does it matter? Yes, it matters. There are those who say that Reagan’s mental laziness was actually a plus. It prevented a lot of competing signals from causing static on the lines, and kept his principles clear. We do not buy that. We state boldly that thinking hard is a good thing, not a bad thing, even in a president. If that sounds snooty, so be it. And maybe George W. Bush will reassure us by his performance Friday night that he is thinking as hard as he should about the issues the president will face in the next four years. Especially the issues resulting from his own failure to think hard during the last four.