Saturday, June 02, 2007

When Stupidity Is Not Enough

Eugene Robinson seems to think Al Gore is smart, in the sense of braniac (link). Greg Mankiw counterpunches with the proposition that Gore’s college grades fell lower than George W. Bush’s, and that if you want a braniac for president, there is only one valedictorian in the race (hint: think Brigham Young) (link). I think they both miss the point, or a lot of points.

First, re Gore, and whether he is smart. I recall that back in 2000, someone asked Al Gore his favorite novel. He answered, Charterhouse of Parma.

What a lunk-headed answer that was. In fact, Charterhouse of Parma is a great political novel, perhaps the best. But for a politician to say it is favorite novel—now, that is really stupid. It means either (a) you are sincere but clueless; or (b) that you are a pretentious jackass. On this front, I have never quite made up my mind about Gore. I tend towards (a) (sincere but clueless). If correct it could well mean that Gore is indeed a serious reader and thinker, but yet ill-equipped to exercise the kind of leadership that we should want.

[As a semi-aside--I am not much troubled by the fact that Gore had one bad semester. Hey, I bombed out of college altogether and look at me.]

But for Mankiw to rebound with Romney’s supposed superior cortical power—you know, that is pretty rich from a party that has spent most of the last eight years telling us that brains didn’t really matter in a president and that we were much better off with the good-natured but dopey W than his truly brainy predecessor.

[I admit I cant find enough evidence to lay this trip on Mankiw personally, but it certainly has been part of the running dogs’ mantra.]

In fact, I think the running dogs were in principle right on the character issue. Brains are on the list of important qualities for a good president, but they are not at the top of the list. Richard Nixon may be the brainiest president of the 20th Century and look what that got us. Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter are three presidents who let their brains get in the way of doing a good job. Bill Clinton was actually a pretty good president, but his fabled brainpower was only one of the reasons, and not the most important.

In fact, good character has not been in plentiful supply among 20th Century presidents. Eisenhower probably makes the cut, and Truman, and Coolidge. I’ve always had a soft spot for Gerald Ford—you gotta love a president who cooks breakfast for his wife—although I have to admit it grieves me to think of him as the man who gave us Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

But the trouble with W is not his weak brainpower, but his utter lack of character—his narcissistic self-absorption and his utter indifference to received institutions and the rule of law.

I don’t think Gore would make a great president because I think he lacks the essential political schools. He may be the kind of braniac that Robinson has in mind, I’m not sure. He almost certainly scores higher on the character chart than W. Where exactly Romney fits in this calculus, I don’t really know; I find him creepy but I doubt very much that he as insistently evil as the incumbent. My immediate point is to try to get the agenda straight: brains can be overrated. Without decent character, even stupidity is not enough.

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