“It Is So Nice to Have a Smart President”
Last night on Bill Maher’s show, I watched Salman Rushdie try to answer the host’s question about how Barack Obama’s bailout and stimulus plans are different from what Bush was trying to do for the economy. The best the famous author could say was, “At least we have a smart person trying to do it.” There has been a similar meme on Letterman during the past few weeks, as Dave swoons about Obama’s undeniable eloquence and intelligence. Then there was Sean Penn praising that eloquence at the Oscars.
Of course, the opposite sentiment is applied to George W. Bush. I have relatives on my wife’s side whose dislike hatred of Bush began with “Bush is an idiot,” and never moved beyond the same mantra. I have a brother who was a fairly liberal Democrat until he worked at at place surrounded by Bush-haters who could never say why they disliked him beyond, “He’s an idiot.” Needless to say, he quickly tired of that act. Obviously, I am not referring to my brother Chris, who worked for the White House; I have two other brothers, so his identity is still unknown to you, gentle readers.
So, do we want smart presidents and other elected officials? Yes, of course we do. But there is another issue with really smart people obtaining so much power over your life. We have this from Freakonomics (emphasis added):
Epstein then goes on to describe his prediction for the Obama economics team:
Obama comes from the tradition that thinks you can get your way on social justice and economic issues without affecting productivity very much — and that’s simply living in a dream world. … [Obama and his economics team] are very smart, but the problem is these high-I.Q. guys always think they can square the circle; they always believe they can beat the system with a cleverer system, and they always fail.
David Halberstam’s famous book, The Best and the Brightest, had much the same theme. I once read — although I can’t remember where — that Halberstam lamented how too many people take his title as literal praise of the team of advisers Kennedy and Johnson put together, and too few people understood the irony in both the title and the whole book. The “best and brightest” are very often the same people who feel they are smarter than you (and they probably are), so that gives them the right to tell you how to live your life for your own good (which it doesn’t).
I don’t know whether we have ever had a truly dumb president. I honestly don’t think it is possible to rise to that level without being pretty smart. But not all kinds of “smart” are required to be president. An ability to calculate pi to the 100th decimal point in your head does not help much in this job. An ability to be smart enough to know your own limits and to admit when you are wrong is key to a successful presidency. Good judgment is imperative, and may be the single most valuable asset to a president. But, frankly, I’d take a person with average intelligence who does not want to run my life over a person who is brilliant but thinks that gives him (or her) the right to run every aspect of my life.
Perhaps it is a sign of true brilliance to raise taxes on smokers and the rich (let’s not even get into the definition of “rich”), to give bailout after bailout to private companies, to grow the welfare state and increase dependency, and on and on. Perhaps he is so brilliant that I am too stupid to understand how it will help me, or even more likely I am too stupid to understand how my selfishness is hurting “working families.” Perhaps, but I doubt it.