Consider the man who may be the smartest—and also the best informed and hardest working—president of our time: Richard Nixon. In some ways, Nixon was actually a pretty good president, but in so many others, he was awful. Fred Greenstein says somewhere that he is a great instance of why it is so pointless to try to rate our presidents. For our purposes, the point is that bis intelligence helped him to be who he was. It was his character that poisoned him; that vengeful paranoia that made him so vulnerable to the forces that brought him down.
Bill Clinton is perhaps another whose indisputable grasp of issues was hampered by his equally indisputable defects of character. And here I think there is a good deal of misunderstanding: the chattering classes tend to like him because of intelligence, whereas I think for most voters, his intelligence as a side issue, if not an impediment. If they liked him at all (and many did) it was because of the way he related to themm, and they identified with him—because, in short, he was trailer trash.
The other end of the spectrum is Gerald Ford—perhaps the only president in my lifetime with whom you would not dread to be caught in an elevator. It’s conventional to say that he wasn’t clever. He certainly wasn’t brilliant like Nixon or Clinton. The record is clear, however, that he was curious; that he was open to evidence, and that he did the best he knew how to weigh facts in the balance, and to act on the best advice he could get. Eisenhower and Bush fit someplace close to the same model. None of them was a perfect president—how many are?—but as occupants of the office, they are pretty good exemplars of what we want a president to be.
The great exception to all of this is Reagan, whose incuriosity seems almost in a class of its own. But the case of Reagan is always more tricky than it appears at first blush. Lou Cannon liked to say: people think Reagan isn’t smart—well he isn’t smart, but he isn’t dumb, either. The fact is that Reagan was unmatched at articulating and communicating a vision--and getting lucky didn’t hurt him a bit. He was so good at that one job (and so lucky) that he didn’t need to let the facts get in his way.
Seen in this light, what is wrong with W is not so much that he is ignorant or incurious—which he is—so much as that he is mean, petty, bullying and vengeful. His incuriosity is not just an incident: it’s a weapon that he likes to use to club his enemies.
I’ll stick to my guns, then, that McCain is ignorant and incurious. But his success or a failure as a president will (would?) turn less on his raw abilities than on his character. I’ll also stick to my guns that he isn’t as nasty and mean-spirited as the incumbent. The question is whether his own traits of character are enough to supervene over the other, perhaps more obvious, shortcomings in his resume.