Howell Raines: Bush's Brain ... How Does It Work?

Roundup: Media's Take

Howell Raines, in the Wash Post (Aug. 27, 2004)

We can all recite the lists of ostentatiously brilliant presidents who faltered (Wilson, Hoover, etc.) and apparent plodders who triumphed (Truman). When I was covering the Reagan White House in 1981, all his top aides were wholesaling Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous comment about Franklin Roosevelt's possessing "a second-rate intellect, but a first-rate temperament." In the end, Reagan confounded scholars, journalists and voters alike. In an obituary essay, his biographer Edmund Morris referred first to Reagan's "intelligence" and later to his "ignorance."

To be fair, innate intelligence has to do with capability, and ignorance to do with variables such as educational opportunity and personal diligence. But the conundrum remains. Is intellect important in presidents? If Americans can't solve the question definitively in the matter of John F. Kerry and George W. Bush, we damn sure ought to make an educated guess.

One highly imperfect but salient way to do so is at the level of campaign tactics. Does anyone in America doubt that Kerry has a higher IQ than Bush? I'm sure the candidates' SATs and college transcripts would put Kerry far ahead. Yet, at this point in the campaign, Bush deserves an A or a high B -- instead of a gentleman's C -- when it comes to neutralizing Kerry's knowledge advantage.

He, or more likely Karl Rove, has triggered Kerry's taste for complicated ideas and explanations. Kerry is telling us that we live in a complex world. Americans know that, but as an electorate, they are not drawn to complexity. Sen. Kerry, read my lips. Your explanations about your conflicting votes on the Iraq war and how you would have conducted it are wondrous as rhetorical architecture. They are also signs that Bush has trapped you into having the wrong conversation with the voters. He trumped your weeks of intricate explanation by going on "Larry King Live" and saying over and over that a president must be resolute and that he will be. More recently, the White House has displayed a devious brilliance in making the Atwateresque Swift boat commercials the focus of campaign news.

Whatever his IQ, George W. Bush as a candidate is a one-trick pony, and so far Kerry is letting him get by with his single trick: endless repetitions of "I make a decision; I stick to it; that's what presidents do." The Kerry campaign has yet to force Bush outside this comfort zone....

The most informative writing I've seen [about how Bush's brain works] ... was an essay published over a year ago in the Atlantic by Richard Brookhiser, a historian and conservative columnist sympathetic to Bush. "Bush has intelligence, energy and humility," he writes, "but does he have imagination?" Brookhiser worries that Bush's limited information "habitat" could cut him off from the ideas necessary to feed presidential creativity in activities such as running a major war. Brookhiser goes on to speak of Bush's reliance on "instinct" and the fact that Bush's "faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity."

In some thoughts I wrote down in 1982 after two years of close observation of Reagan on the campaign trail and in the White House, I characterized him as a "political primitive" who valued "beliefs over knowledge" based on verifiable facts. I also noted that Reagan had a "high tolerance for ambiguity" as to the outcome of policies that proceeded from such rough-hewn thought.

That strikes me as a different -- less troubling -- trait than what Brookhiser sees as Bush's refusal to recognize the mere existence of ambiguity. In general I've come to feel that what we have in Bush is a shadowy version of Reagan's strengths and an exaggerated version of his intellectual weaknesses.

Related Link

  • Rick Shenkman: The Bush Brain

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