The Intelligence of George W. Bush

Keith Hennessey has high praise for the intelligence of George W. Bush, and having worked closely with the 43rd president, Keith Hennessey is probably in a position to speak authoritatively on Bush’s strengths, weaknesses and character. I have no doubt that Bush is smarter than he let on, but I have to wonder why he didn’t let on. It is one thing to cause your opponents to underestimate you—or misunderestimate you (I guess making the joke here is obligatory, or something)—but it is another to allow your opponents to openly disrespect you without any pushback, thus ensuring that your public persona is reduced to joke-level status. I appreciate that in addition to wanting to be underestimated, Bush also wanted to be seen as a good ol’ boy—the better public image to win votes with, my dear—but Bill Clinton managed to show that you can be both publicly whip smart and a good ol’ boy. I am sure that it was within Bush’s skill set to manage the same feat, which makes it all the more strange that he chose an alternative path.

Hennessey’s post is also interesting because of all of the scorn and scoffing that it engendered on the left. Ezra Klein informs us that he believes that George W. Bush was smart too, but that he was also a bad president; historians say so, after all! The fact that the historians in question are a politically biased bunch goes unmentioned by young Ezra. Also unmentioned by young Ezra—and by all of the other port-side commentators that I have seen who have weighed in on Hennessey’s post—is the glaring contradiction between (a) the assertion that Bush was a terrible president and Barack Obama is a vast improvement; and (b) the incontrovertible fact that on a host of very important issues, Barack Obama is serving out George W. Bush’s third and fourth terms.

  1. Mollie Hemingway
    C

    What I don’t get is that GWB’s high intelligence really doesn’t speak to whether he was a good or bad president.

    Still, I do find the obsession with his intelligence from some many cultural elites to be fascinating.

  2. Luozi

    Pejman, how do you “push back” against being called “stupid” in 20 different ways?  “No, no.  That’s not true sir! Iam smart!”?  Or perhaps he should let somebody else say it for him?  Should he compete in a spelling bee?  I’m sure there’s a way, but it’s not immediately clear to this political bumpkin (me, not Bush). 

  3. Ontos
    Luozi: Pejman, how do you “push back” against being called “stupid” in 20 different ways?  “No, no.  That’s not true sir! Iam smart!”?  Or perhaps he should let somebody else say it for him?  Should he compete in a spelling bee?  I’m sure there’s a way, but it’s not immediately clear to this political bumpkin (me, not Bush).  · 14 minutes ago

    Obviously, but your arguing beside the point.   You demonstrate your intelligence not by declaring it but by demonstrating it.  Bush needed to enter into the discussion and perspective that he allowed to go unanswered [and thus appear to have admitted] that he lied or misled about the intelligence in order to go into Iraq.   In truth, Bush was too weak.  He let others push him into the WMD justification as the chief reason for going to war, and then he fiddled around too long with  international and other delayers so that he gave Iraq time to move whatever WMD it  had.   2.  Bush went along with wild congressional spending when he should have vetoed. Then he did the RX Drug entitlement.  3. Bush also backed away from conservatives. CONTINUED

  4. Ontos

    CONTINUATION

    I felt at the time that the only explanation for Bush’s non-response to the vicious criticism, was either misguided religious (turning the other cheek) or a kind of Bush family Presumption of being above the grabby and fevered  Critics.   I never trusted GHW Bush, initially because he opposed Reagan & then when he gave into the EMK Restoration of Ciivil Rights legislation which undid decades of slow work on the Supreme Court to limit the disparate impact concept of racial discrimination.  Bush 41 did not appreciate the lethal blow to our country that this one act had and he gave it all away in a moment of triumph after getting Clarence Thomas confirmed.  It was that kind of Patrician Idiocy that probably infected Bush 43 as well.   43 contributed to the unmerited resurgence and legitimization  of the Clintons early in his (43′s) presidency.  In short, the Bushes Jeb, 43, & 41, view themselves as on a plane where they can be “the nice guys” at our expense because they do not take ideas all that seriously.  43 did a lot of damage, while good in some ways, but too indulgent to domestic evil & ruinous ideas. 

  5. Fricosis Guy

    The elite obsession was amazing, since it seemed clear that Dubya had better grades and SAT scores than Gore and Kerry. 

    Building on your first point, Steve Sailer had a theory that Obama likely aced his SATs and LSATs (i.e., he’s quite smart and not releasing it for the same reason he didn’t release the birth certificate). Look how well that’s turned out (though I think there’s something to JPod’s idea that Obama is a Hegelian World-Historical figure).

    Mollie Hemingway, Ed.: What I don’t get is that GWB’s high intelligence really doesn’t speak to whether he was a good or bad president.

    Still, I do find the obsession with his intelligence from some many cultural elites to be fascinating. · 2 hours ago

  6. BrentB67

    What bothered so many cultural elites (term borrowed from Mollie) about GW Bush is that he is very secure in his own skin and doesn’t need or crave external affirmation.

    The left craves attention and constant confirmation that their priorities no matter how misguided are somehow just.

    GW Bush was having none of it. His Presidency was never about him or his own accomplishments. He is a very strong Christian and answers only to God and that drives the left nuts.

    Additionally, he was a hands off executive. He recrutied and retained people he trusted and then he let them carry out their responsibilities without micromanaging them. This left the impression that he wasn’t aware of or capable of handling the details.

    All of this was most evident during his tenure as Governor of Texas, a time of his political career that is too often forgotten.

  7. BrentB67
    Luozi: Pejman, how do you “push back” against being called “stupid” in 20 different ways?  “No, no.  That’s not true sir! Iam smart!”?  Or perhaps he should let somebody else say it for him?  Should he compete in a spelling bee?  I’m sure there’s a way, but it’s not immediately clear to this political bumpkin (me, not Bush).  · 2 hours ago

    Very good point. Responding to attacks like that from the left tends to look desperate and weak.

  8. Franco
    Ontos:

    I felt at the time that the only explanation for Bush’s non-response to the vicious criticism, was either misguided religious (turning the other cheek) or a kind of Bush family Presumption of being above the grabby and fevered  Critics.  ……..

    Bush 41 did not appreciate the lethal blow to our country that this one act had and he gave it all away in a moment of triumph after getting Clarence Thomas confirmed.  It was that kind of Patrician Idiocy that probably infected Bush 43 as well.   43 contributed to the unmerited resurgence and legitimization  of the Clintons early in his (43′s) presidency.  In short, the Bushes Jeb, 43, & 41, view themselves as on a plane where they can be “the nice guys” at our expense because they do not take ideas all that seriously.  43 did a lot of damage, while good in some ways, but too indulgent to domestic evil & ruinous ideas.  

    Awesome analysis, I couldn’t agree more and very informative. I would welcome your thoughts on my latest post on the member feed about Bush.

  9. Franco

    At this point, I don’t really care what people think about Bush, smart, stupid whatever. I gave up defending Bush for precisely the reasons Pejman gives. Ironically Bush, down-to-earth-man-of-the-people, never wanted to get his hands dirty with politics, leaving it all up to his supporters who didn’t have the bully pulpit. The pulpit wasn’t even used as a witness-stand for the defense!

    Past Republicasn presidents always get rehabilitated by the left, usually just in time to pretend their attacks on current political threats aren’t partisan. 

    On the last point of Obama serving out the 3rd and 4th Bush terms. That’s not a compliment to either of them.

  10. Bartholomew Xerxes Ogilvie, Jr.

    I remember saying to someone, in the aftermath of 9/11, that GWB might turn out to be a Churchill figure — not particularly highly regarded until circumstances gave him the crisis he was made for. In retrospect, that was wishful thinking; I’m still glad that Bush was president rather than Gore, but I see his presidency as a mixed bag.

    But yeah, one of his biggest failings, in my opinion, was giving the Left such an easy target. Some of that he couldn’t change: I always believed he was smart, but not a particularly good public speaker, and some people just don’t have that skill. But he should have worked harder to communicate his ideas. There were good reasons to invade Iraq, but the Bush administration never did a good job of explaining them; that left its opponents free to construct their “Bush Lied” WMD conspiracy theories.

    The Left would never have supported Bush’s foreign policy, but it would have been better to have a disagreement based on policy than a disagreement based on a caricature of Bush as evil and stupid. It’s a caricature that all Republicans are still fighting.

  11. Robert E. Lee

    Intelligence does not equate to wisdom.  President Carter was a Naval Academy graduate and served in the submarine forces as a nuclear officer.  Undoubtedly intelligent (well, for a Navy puke) he was not a good president.

  12. BrentB67
    Robert E. Lee: Intelligence does not equate to wisdom.  President Carter was a Naval Academy graduate and served in the submarine forces as a nuclear officer.  Undoubtedly intelligent (well, for a Navy puke) he was not a good president. · 6 minutes ago

    The only thing saving you from a snappy retort is my background as an aviator.

    Fly Navy!

  13. SEnkey

    I see a reoccurring  argument that goes something like this: : “I’m glad he was president and not the other guy, but I wish he would have done the very things that would have destroyed the persona that got him elected and re-elected.” It is a mixed bag, but it is a whole sale deal. In the end it was an extremely pragmatic approach to the political reality of the time that speaks volumes of the man’s humility.  Obama can afford to throw a fit over every insult and hint of dissent, Bush could not. Obama can make bad arguments and “win”, Bush could have made made the best arguments and still would have lost. 

    I admit that this pragmatic approach had unintended consequences with which we are still dealing. We are still dealing with  the stigma of being the dumb, hawkish, bad economics party – even though none of that is true. If anything this stigma proves my point. Even when we, today, articulate and argue the best points for our views – we still lose. Why would it have been any different for Bush? 

  14. Joe

    Jay Nordlinger used to talk a lot in his NRO Impromtus posts about just how well read George Bush is, including his reading competitions with Karl Rove. At the very least, he was intellectually curious, and I think probably a bit more than that.

    It may have been in a John Derbyshire column (it sounds like something he’d write), but the theory is that you can only relate well to people within 20 IQ points of yourself. So if a politician is to be successful, he should be smarter than average, but not too smart, so as not to be at a point on the bell curve that’s unrelatable. I don’t claim Bush was at that point, but if there’s any truth to that 20 IQ assertion, then it’s a little odd why we consider stupidity to be such a strong insult in politics. It seems to me that a 120 IQ would be about right which, according to some people’s view of his test scores (not a great measure) would put him somewhere around there. Not a dumb guy.

  15. profdlp

    No one has their approval ratings fall as low as GWB’s were toward the end of his presidency based solely on the unanimous disapproval of the opposition – you need to have some of your natural allies mad at you as well.

    One of the things that frustrated me enormously about Bush was that he allowed so many obvious falsehoods to go unrebutted.  If my guy won’t defend himself I will eventually grow tired of doing the “defending” for him.  I always felt he was smarter than he let on, but the only advantage of getting your opponent to “misunderstimate” you is to do so in order to sucker them in for what will then be an unanticipated – and likely devastating – counterattack.  Too bad it never happened.

  16. John Mason

    This discussion seems odd to me. 

    The media is generally progressive and has pronounced all republican presidents or candidates since (and including) Eisenhower to be dull or stupid except for Richard Nixon, who was evil.

    All liberals, particularly non-southerners, were brilliant.

    I thought Bush’s speeches to be intelligent and respectful of all important points of view. 

    I found Al Gore’s and Barack Obama’s speeches stupifying.

    The issue is not Bush’s intelligence, but the press’s agenda.

  17. Duane Oyen

    Eisenhower was exactly the same, had the same “slow” image.  Both of them found that they accomplished things when they took people a bit by surprise. 

    It is also true that protesting too much (“I am not dumb!”) is not an effective defense.  Get on with the job and let the little people debate IQ.

    I can confirm this through a close friend who interned at a major Washington think tank.  They were asked one day to send over a China foreign policy expert to the White House for another of the common  gatherings of experts providing the POTUS with off-the record advice. My friend’s boss (20 years experience, PhD in China policy, lots of publications, fluent in Mandarin, all the credentials) was selected.

    The boss came back from the meeting and said:

    1) GWB ran the meeting- “I’m not a Republican, my image of him was that he was a Texas good old boy and Cheney’s puppet.”

    2) “He knew his stuff, obviously prepared, asked excellent questions, and had perceptive follow-up questions.  Cheney just took notes.”

    3) “I’m still not a Republican, but I will never again believe the ‘dumb GWB’ accusations.”

  18. PsychLynne

    One of my favorite points to make to liberal educators, is that they say GWB was “dumb” and that intelligence tests results can’t be trusted because of disparate impact and race/ethnic/class differences.  Then, they are stuck in a double bind…GWB might actually be smart, just not support their policies (and we can estimate IQ by looking at vocabulary, vocational/educational history and a few other factors) or they think he’s dumb because he doesn’t agree with them, which isn’t in line with the value of tolerance.  

    I just smile, after all, I’m a dumb Southerner

  19. profdlp

    Rebutting an obvious falsehood is not a waste of time.  Ignoring it allows it, over time, to become “truth”.  That’s why, as tedious as it often is, it’s worth it to take the time to correct a liberal when they start off with “As everyone knows…” and then go on to spout some foolish claptrap.

    A good example from recent times might be Romney’s debate moment when Candy Crowley jumped in to help Obama by reinforcing Obama’s lie about Benghazi.  Romney should have stared right into the camera and said something like “Ms. Crowley is wrong and our president is wrong.  Go and check it out.”  Instead, he stood there in shock like a doofus and let the comment go unchallenged.

    As for “credible third parties”, if someone tells a lie about me I’m not going to stand around like a baby and wait for someone else to come along – I’m going to fight.  Reagan didn’t wait for someone else to point out who was paying for that microphone – he saw something wrong and had the guts to point it out.

  20. Pejman Yousefzadeh
    C

    I agree entirely with this critique.

    profdlp: No one has their approval ratings fall as low as GWB’s were toward the end of his presidency based solely on the unanimous disapproval of the opposition – you need to have some of your natural allies mad at you as well.

    One of the things that frustrated me enormously about Bush was that he allowed so many obvious falsehoods to go unrebutted.  If my guy won’t defend himself I will eventually grow tired of doing the “defending” for him.  I always felt he was smarter than he let on, but the only advantage of getting your opponent to “misunderstimate” you is to do so in order to sucker them in for what will then be an unanticipated – and likely devastating – counterattack.  Too bad it never happened. · April 26, 2013 at 10:03am

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