There’s a presidential election in the United States next year and that means you can look forward to many editorials, columns and opinion pieces by New Zealand writers about what dummies the Republican contenders are.
It won’t make any difference to point out that Senator Rand Paul and Ben Carson are highly trained surgeons. Senator Ted Cruz may have been regarded “off the charts brilliant” by liberal Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, but that won’t help him. Never mind that Carly Fiorina was the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company and was responsible for one of the biggest tech mergers in history.
This is because all of these contenders will take policy stances at odds with what is considered wise or prudent by New Zealand opinion-makers – who will therefore inevitably declare a received wisdom that the Republican field consists mostly of airheads, numbskulls and know-nothings.
In the 2000 election, there was a persistent narrative around Bush being intellectually inferior to Democratic nominee Al Gore. You might be surprised to learn, therefore, that a comparison of their respective university transcripts shows Bush to have the superior record. In fact, despite somehow having acquired the cachet of scientific expertise, Gore seems to have fared particularly badly in science courses.
The record also shows Bush was a slightly better student than 2004 opponent John Kerry. According to military testing undertaken by both when they were in their twenties, Bush probably had the higher IQ. Again, however, the campaign press usually portrayed Kerry as the more cerebral of the two.
Bush actually passed all his courses while Gore failed a natural sciences course and was in the bottom fifth of his year. John Kerry got Ds in history, geology and political science.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Bush was a better president than Gore or Kerry would have been. While people tend to fixate on intelligence, it is hardly the be all and end all of enlightened leadership. On the contrary, there are many other factors that go into making an effective leader, including humility, patience, decisiveness and human decency.
And in the absence of countervailing influences, intelligence often leads to hubris. Nemesis is rarely far behind.
Few people would doubt that Robert Muldoon or Richard Nixon were highly intelligent men. Their cleverness, however, led them to overestimate their ability to control a complex system like a developed economy. Both were arrogant enough to centrally regulate prices and wages and the result in both cases was economic damage that took years to mend.
Herman Goring was highly intelligent (he had a measured IQ of 138). He also signed off on the final solution. Clearly his brainpower did not give him moral clarity enough to oppose the murder of millions of innocent men, women and children.
You need politicians to be smart, but not super smart. So long as they are not actually stupid, then other factors such as character, and judgement come to the fore.