iFear and loathing of President Bush was the dish of the day, served piping hot with a side of contempt to the Democrats assembled in Boston's Fleet Center. They unanimously agreed that he's not smart enough to be president.
This belief in his lack of smarts has captured a large following, similar to the conventional liberal wisdom that dogged Ronald Reagan across his eight years in Washington. Ronald Reagan as a simpleton, with a world view gleaned from fortune cookies, was discarded by his detractors in the week of national mourning. Foe no less than friend joined in praise for the man whose presidency ended the Cold War.
Whether George W. Bush wins or loses in November, his deer-in-the-headlights reputation is likely to be conspicuously absent from the historians' analysis of his foreign policy. George W. prefers to be underestimated because it keeps his challengers off guard. He's smart enough to know that much. When he prevails it drives his detractors mad.
The subject of smarts - who has 'em and what they do with 'em - is particularly fascinating when it becomes the focus of debate in the presidential election. What kind of intelligence do we expect, or want, from a president? The Wilson Quarterly's summer issue poses the question: "Do Smarts Rule?" We discover that high intelligence is no guarantee of effective leadership.
John F. Kennedy, for example, had an IQ of 119, which is on the high end of normal. Richard Nixon scored an impressive 143. (Neither is formal education necessarily a barometer of smarts. Abraham Lincoln educated himself and Harry Truman barely finished high school.)
JFK's modest IQ is considered just about right for presidential leadership, according to Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, who studies such things. "Many empirical studies confirm the central prediction that an IQ near 119 is the prescription for leader success," he writes in "Greatness: Who Makes History and Why." Above that level a person's ideas and language may become too complex, too overwrought, too overreaching and conflicted to settle persuasively on a position for action. What suits a philosopher or scientist doesn't necessarily suit the commander in chief.
The significance of IQ is controversial, but how a person exercises his intelligence is an important guide to what kind of leader he will make. Opponents of Dwight Eisenhower painted him as a popular dunce who spoke in simple and sometimes mangled language, but voters chose him twice over Adlai Stevenson, "the egghead" whose language was sophisticated, intellectual and bookish. The public decided, probably correctly, that he would have been a wishy-washy leader.
John Kerry, like Jimmy Carter, gathers an abundance of detail and weighs facts with great intellectual deliberation, which his advocates say explains his willingness to change his mind. The Bush campaign characterizes Kerry's brooding methodical style as responsible for his flip-flops, split-hairs, straddles, waffles and doublespeak. He's squarely in the tradition of Hamlet, a man who can't make up his mind.
No one wants a hesitant leader who can't stand strong when the going gets tough and it's time for the tough to get going. No matter how many convoluted explanations John Kerry offers to defend why he voted for the war in Iraq and then voted against funding the troops, it sounds more like nonsense than nuance. When he felt the heat from Howard Dean in the primaries, he wilted.
"If you disagree with the senator on most any issue," President Bush famously needled him, "you may just have caught him on the wrong day." Leadership requires consistent direction and clarity of vision.
Democrats gleefully mocked George W. for taking the controls of the plane taking him to the USS Abraham Lincoln, where he declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq. Saddam Hussein had been toppled, but the war was not over. Nevertheless, the troops were cheered by the recognition of the commander in chief when he told them: "In this battle we have fought for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world."
If John Kerry were president now, Saddam Hussein might still be presiding over his torture chambers and his acres and acres of mass graves; if he could not take the heat from Howard Dean, it's difficult to imagine him standing up to the quitters who want to cut and run from Iraq. The silence in the dovecote in Boston was merely tactical.