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Nov 5, 2006 8:33 pm

Presidential IQ

Professor Reeves is the author of A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy and is the author and editor of eleven other books. He has just published a biography of Wisconsin Governor Walter J. Kohler, Jr. Mr. Reeves is a Senior Fellow of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, recently published a study on the intelligence of American presidents in the journal Political Psychology (volume 27, 2006, pp. 511-26). Four IQ estimates were presented for each Chief Executive. The fourth and apparently most up-to-date category, “ages 18-26, corrected for data reliability,” attracted considerable newspaper and magazine interest. In this assessment, all of the presidents scored at least 130, placing them in the top 2.2% of the population. The presidents with the highest IQs were: John Quincy Adams (175), Thomas Jefferson (160), John F. Kennedy (159.8), Bill Clinton (159), Jimmy Carter (156.8), Woodrow Wilson (155.2), Theodore Roosevelt (153), Chester A. Arthur (152.3), and Abraham Lincoln (150).

The lowest IQ belonged to Ulysses S. Grant (130). And just above him, to the delight of the Left, was President George W. Bush (138.5) Simonton discusses Bush at length, noting that the full range of IQ estimates put the president between 111 and 138.5, placing him only above Warren G. Harding on three of the four estimates.

Simonton tells us that the scores are based on accounts of early developments in the lives of the presidents, early published works, an openness to experience, and such traits as inventiveness, curiosity, charisma, and sophistication. The sources include unidentified biographies written by historians and political scientists and the surveys of presidential leadership taken by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and others. Simonton and the other psychologists cited apparently failed to wrestle directly with the often highly revealing primary sources that biographers of every president must encounter. And no one seems to have made the vital distinction in the quality of scholarship between, say, Matthew Josephson and Ari Hoogenboom. To the psychologists, apparently, a biography is a biography, and a poll is a poll.

This study is an example of an academic field known as historiometry. Simonton and social scientist Charles Murray are advocates of this effort to apply a quantitative method of statistical analysis for retrospective data. (Note Murray’s mammoth and highly controversial volume Human Accomplishment.)

I’m a biographer of two of the top nine presidents on Simonton’s list and am highly familiar with the histories of the other seven. In my judgment, this study has little if any value. Let’s take JFK and Chester A. Arthur as examples.

Kennedy was actually given an IQ test before entering Choate. His score was 119. (His assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, once scored 118.) There is no evidence to support the claim that his score should have been more than 40 points higher. As I described in detail in A Question Of Character, Kennedy’s academic achievements were modest and respectable, his published writing and speeches were largely done by others (no study of Kennedy is worthwhile that downplays the role of Ted Sorensen), and his celebrated wit was the often the result of clever political planning. The image of JFK as a charming and cerebral superman was the product of a well financed and carefully thought out plan devised and led by unscrupulous and ambitious Joseph P. Kennedy, JFK’s father. In truth, JFK would have been happy to spend his life as a playboy. That choice became unavailable when his older brother, who had been groomed by his father for the presidency, was killed in World War II. In 1946, the burden fell on the oldest remaining Kennedy male, a sickly and often feckless womanizer. The Kennedy Administration had its successes and failures, but there is little reason to ascribe a brilliance to the president that was invisible during his earlier years.

Chester Alan Arthur was largely unknown before my Gentleman Boss was published in 1975. The discovery of many valuable primary sources gave us a clear look at the president for the first time. Among the most interesting facts that emerged involved his service during the Civil War, his direct involvement in the spoils system, and the bizarre way in which he was elevated to the GOP presidential ticket in 1880. His concealed and fatal illness while in the White House also came to light.

While Arthur was a college graduate, and was widely considered to be a gentleman, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that his IQ was extraordinary. That a psychologist can rank his intelligence 2.3 points ahead of Lincoln’s suggests access to a treasure of primary sources from and about Arthur that does not exist.

This historian thinks it impossible to assign IQ numbers to historical figures. If there is sufficient evidence (as there usually is in the case of American presidents), we can call people from the past extremely intelligent. Adams, Wilson, TR, Jefferson, and Lincoln were clearly well above average intellectually. But let us not pretend that we can rank them by tenths of a percentage point or declare that a man in one era stands well above another from a different time and place.

My educated guess is that this recent study was designed in part to denigrate the intelligence of the current occupant of the White House. It is quite common for both sides in the Culture War to dismiss the opposition as ignorant and stupid, and here we apparently see yet another such effort in the guise of scholarship. Simonton noted that Bush’s “Openness” rating, a factor in gauging intelligence, was zero, whereas Carter received a score of 77.0 out of a possible 100 and Clinton and Kennedy were each awarded 82.0. Try to read the ludicrous justification for these numbers on pp. 520-22 with a straight face. The author concludes that “Bush’s intellect may be more a liability than an asset with respect to his performance as the nation’s chief executive. His strengths most likely lie elsewhere.”

Let us not pretend to be able to calculate the intelligence of historical figures with even reasonable certainty. Let us not confuse the policy decisions of presidents in complex historical settings with intelligence. And let us redouble our commitment as scholars to be fair and impartial.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 11/13/2006

I reached the age of reason under Franklin Roosevelt, and have watched all presidents since 1940 very closely.

Two of them stand out as extremely stupid--as presidents go. While nobody really stupid can get the job, between Roosevelt and Dubya the dumb two were Harry Truman and Gerald Ford. Sorry about that. It's not partisan, as you can see, just simply the truth.

Roosevelt was very cunning, and extremely well educated compared to Truman--who was an ignoramous. Bess was a nice person, and he married up. Eisenhower was quick, and somewhat scholarly. Nixon was a very hard worker, a logical thinker, good at organizing, like an engineer. (He was not elected twice on his personality). Kennedy was not interested in things like the fate of the U.S., but only in winning, finessing each day one at a time, and having bimbos. His brother Ted is much more interested in policy. Same with Lyndon Johnson, except he did have an honest desire to elevate minorities, along with with an enormous streak of personal avarice. Carter has peasant shrewdness about him, and a good command of English. While capable of making awful mistakes, ad seriatim, Carter is not really stupid. Reagan was a rare breed with firm convictions, yet he knew his intellectual limits--and also knew they were not as narrow as others supposed. Reagan's big advantage, unlike say Carter or JFK Clinton, was that he knew what he wanted to do. Bush 41 was not as quick as Bush 43, or Reagan for that matter, and he was much more naive. He made a poor president. Bubba was bright, of course, and in love with himself more than any other president in history. A thoroughly bad man, too, who could sell federal pardons. Dubya is big game, tracked by highly skilled big game hunters, and he needs all the loyalty and firewalls he has constructed to get on with the job. Not lazy, either. On the whole, he will be seen in retrospect as a quite successful president, with a good feel for the job. He also has pretty firm ideas about what he wants to do.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/7/2006

For what it's worth, Reeves is a specialist on the politics of the 50s and 60s, including, as his bio at the top indicates, a full-scale biography of Kennedy.

I make no comment on the quality of his work, except to note that his books on McCarthy are respected on a pretty non-partisan basis.

Ricardo Luis Rodriguez - 11/6/2006

Going to Yale, going to Harvard, Flying a fighter jet plane, beating Ann Richards, Two terms as a president, WHAT A DOLT!!!
Let me break it down for you gently. You are a bright guy. You want to do good. You have thought about it carefully, and for a long time. Great, I'm happy you are involved. Now comes this guy who has thought about those very same things you have thought about for so long and so hard. But wonder of wonders, he DISAGREES with you. As a matter of fact, he's saying things that don't make any sense to you. Well, you're a bright guy, so if he disagrees, he must have gone wrong on his thinking because he's DUMB. You want to do good, and the things he proposes are different than the ones you would do! Some of them are the opposite of what you would do! Well, then, since the opposite of good is bad, he must be a BAD person!
So there, in a nutshell, is the entire Left's objection to Bush. He's DUMB, and he's a BAD person and he stole our election and all those idiots voted for him. WAHHHH, WAAAAAHHHH,WAAAAHHH!
But I see KINDNESS in your heart, as we both know how nice Forrest was, you are therefore giving Bush a compliment, because Dumb as he was, he ended up doing right by people.

Sean M. Samis - 11/6/2006

I only have one criticism of Reeves' essay: He should have ignored this "study" altogether.

Given the uncertainty of what meaning to attribute to IQ at all, and the additional uncertainties of applying it to persons in the past (especially in the light of the Flynn Effect); and of assigning IQs to persons who never took a standardized tests, and of assigning IQs based on highly subjective criteria; and of applying these subjective criteria to controversial historical figures, this study at best is dubious and at worst is worthless.

I can understand why this "study" was published: the author's career rises or falls based on the number of scholarly articles published. "Publish or perish" is true if only figuratively. Given the "Rooter" incident earlier this year, we can say with some certainty that standards of scholarship are quite low.

I can only guess Reeves responds to this "study" for much the same reason: he needed something to write about.

... and me? I don't have a much better excuse. What can I say; it's cold here in Wisconsin and I need to keep active to stay warm.

sean s.

Seth Cable Tubman - 11/6/2006

Well done may be better than well said, but I think you hit the nail on the head. While I don't pretend to believe Bush is in Harriet Miers' words "the most intelligent man I've ever known.", giving Clinton and Kennedy an 82 on "openness" after the latter lied to get into the presidency, and the former kept lying in office, stretches the credibility of the survey to its limit. It is far more likely that the writer is a partisan bombthrower.

Joseph Lawrence Lammers - 11/6/2006

This response is almost worthless. Reeves gives a good assessement of the study. He isn't defending Bush, just stating the obvious.

Jason Blake Keuter - 11/6/2006

Somewhat in contrast to Ms Reyes, I have taken 145 IQ tests and never managed to score above 22.

mark safranski - 11/6/2006

"I have an IQ of 145 and obtained a doctorate at age 22.
I hate to tell these "experts", but IQ tests only test one type of intelligence. I happen to place high in math and in science, and am good at doing tests. Hence my "high" IQ."

There is a lot of controversy over the concept of "g" and how that fits into the context of massive modularity in brain structure. You are correct that intelligence has varied and fluid characteristics beyond the scope of standard IQ tests.

On the other hand, IQ tests are a reasonably good measure of analytical ability and the ability to handle multiple variables. IQ tests aren't useless, they just shouldn't be considered a defining milestone for a person's worth or sum capabilities.

Yehudi Amitz - 11/6/2006

Papa Kennedy bought Jackie's dresses so why not some IQ?
Baby Bush, Al Gore, JFK are/were bozos talented in financial and political inheritances. Does anyone remember how Dan Quayle got into publishing without knowing how to spell "potato"?

John Chapman - 11/6/2006

I think the major issue of this article is the validity of IQ’s and why they were invented. It certainly is “impossible to assign IQ numbers to historical figures”, especially of long dead presidents from a culture of Jefferson’s time, highly practical and visionary, to today’s dumbed -down clone culture.

When I got to the part about JFK “in truth” being happier to spend his life as a playboy I wondered where Reeves got this truth from. Was this statement in a JFK memoir? Either way, how astute. JFK was a playboy, and so what? This is old news. Reeves’ other educated guess was that the study, Simonton’s I suppose, was designed “to denigrate the intelligence of the current occupant of the White House.” No one needs any help from Simonton to denigrate our current president. Once again, another fine partisan piece from Reeves. It's a case of a neo-conservative throwing stones from a glass house.

James Jude Simonelli - 11/6/2006

To quote another great statesman of these great American times, Forrest Gump, "Stupid is as stupid does."

Whatever IQ "W" may be judged to have his actions, rhetoric, demeanor, and results should qualify him for the Forrest Gump Award.

"Stupid is as stupid does."

Nancy REYES - 11/5/2006

I have an IQ of 145 and obtained a doctorate at age 22.
I hate to tell these "experts", but IQ tests only test one type of intelligence. I happen to place high in math and in science, and am good at doing tests. Hence my "high" IQ.

What is missing from IQ tests are more important things like judgement, "emotional" IQ, and other things like being able to see the big picture.

Now, one may or may not criticize the present US president on these matters, but don't pretend they have anything to do with an IQ test.

mark safranski - 11/5/2006

I have to agree with Professor Reeves, the IQ figures cited here are simply preposterous, though I would agree that some of the presidents in the top cohort, JFK excepted, were unusually bright.

138 IQ is a near genius rank. 130 is considered to be very superior intelligence. Both are in the top percentages of the population in terms of the bell curve. (in contrast, the minimum IQ needed to earn a college degree in even a semi-rigorous subject is approximately 115. Recall half the population has an IQ of less than 100 and a considerable number of less than 90)

Measurements above 160-180 have to be taken with a grain of salt because it is unlikely a psychometrician is going to be able to devise a valid and reliable test for someone who is two or more standard deviations higher in IQ. Self-referential limitation.

Jefferson was a true polymath, not merely a genius. Hoover, a logistical wizard and engineer with an intuitive grasp of complex systems, certainly had a very high IQ. Much higher than his failed presidency would indicate.

Jonathan Dresner - 11/5/2006

Twice in the space of a month, I find myself in something like agreement. Numbers like this are only as good as the data used to produce them, and these are highly questionable.

I'd note, moreover, that even allowing for Bush being the second lowest-scoring president, he's still scoring higher than most of the population at large. He's not dumb. That's part of the problem....