If a man earned poor grades in college, is he fit to be the next president of the United States?
The recent attacks on the intelligence of Texas Governor Rick Perry included the charge that he was dumb and, more bitingly, was like George W. Bush only without the brains. The release of his college transcripts seemed to confirm these accusations. In fact, Frank James, writing on NPR.org, warned, “if you ever enter politics, you may one day think about running for president. And if you do decide to run, your college grades could become an issue, especially if they’re mediocre.”
But do poor college grades demonstrate a lack of intelligence? Or does being “smart” qualify someone to be president? And can you have an excellent academic pedigree and not be a good leader? History has some fascinating lessons to teach us.
There is little doubt that Ronald Reagan was the greatest of our last nine presidents (from Kennedy to Bush), and he is often ranked high among the top presidents of the 20th century. Yet Reagan graduated from the world renowned (sarcasm intended) Eureka College. Try that one out the next time you play trivia. He did not attend grad school and he was often ridiculed as being nothing more than a B-movie actor, yet he won the Cold War and helped revive the American economy.
Harry S. Truman is also viewed in a positive light by historians, yet he was only one of two presidents since 1869 who had no college degree.
Of our first seven presidents, George Washington was also only one of two without a college degree. Did this disqualify him from being one of our greatest leaders, commonly ranked first or second among all presidents? And the man who often takes the top spot on the list ahead of Washington had the least formal education of any of our presidents.
I’m speaking, of course, of Abraham Lincoln, who had roughly one year of formal learning, being otherwise self-taught and working his way through William Blackstone’s famous text in order to become a lawyer. So, our finest president had the least schoolroom education.
Of course, we have had excellent presidents who were also brilliant academically, like the polymath Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt historian Edmund Morris concurs with the statement of H. G. Wells that Roosevelt had “the most vigorous brain in a conspicuously responsible position in the world.” Wells further stated that, “He seems to be echoing with all the thoughts of the time, he has receptivity to the pitch of genius.”) And there was Woodrow Wilson, who earned a Ph.D. in history and political science from John Hopkins.
On the flip side, the recent president most ridiculed for his alleged lack of brains (think “nucular”) was George W. Bush, yet he is the only president who earned an M.B.A., and from Harvard Business School no less, having done his undergraduate studies at Yale. His critics, then, would surely say that a top flight education doesn’t make you “smart,” and yet Bush was smart enough to become the co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, the governor of Texas, and a two-term president of the United States.
But there’s more. You can have a solid education and be brilliant and still have serious ethical and moral flaws, which are certainly major weaknesses for a leader. Richard Nixon earned his law degree from Duke University, yet that didn’t stop him from falling headlong into Watergate. (In the words of James MacGregor Burns, “How can one evaluate such an idiosyncratic president, so brilliant and so morally lacking?”) And does the name William Jefferson Clinton ring a bell? Being an Oxford Rhodes Scholar and graduating with a law degree from Yale simply meant that his academics outpaced his morals.
As for our current leader, Barack Obama, often praised for his intellect (his reference to 57 states notwithstanding), his plummeting approval rates point to the real possibility of him being a one-term president, suggesting that you can be well-educated and “smart” and yet not be a good president.
And, outside the world of politics, let’s not forget the corporate geniuses who dropped out of college, like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Steve Jobs (Apple), Michael Dell (Dell), and Larry Ellison (Oracle), or men like Richard Branson (Virgin), who dropped out of high school, or philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who dropped out of elementary school.
In sum: 1) You can be well-educated and not “smart”; 2) You can be “smart” and not well educated; 3) You can be lacking in formal education and still be a great leader; 4) You can be well-educated and “smart” but that doesn’t guarantee strong ethics or morality; 5) You can be well-educated and “smart” and not be a good leader.
So, the question we should ask is not, “Is this candidate smart (or dumb)?”, but rather, “Would he (or she) make a good president?” In fact, ask yourself this question: “What are the top five qualities I most value in a president?”
Your answers will be enlightening. Feel free to post them here.
Michael Brown holds a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures from New York University. He is the author of 25 books, includingLine of Fire. Follow him at AskDrBrown on Facebook or @drmichaellbrown on Twitter.