Enough brains for president?
Since his election in 2000, the intellectual fitness of George W. Bush for the presidency has been the subject of books, newspaper columns, aspersions from Democrats at nearly every level of government, the gift that keeps on giving for comedians, and general discussion among the electorate. Republicans have generally avoided the subject, or at most said, pro forma, that Mr. Bush is quite capable of fulfilling the duties of office. David Brooks, New York Times columnist and pundit, has gone further, saying the president is an example of a bright guy who goes to some lengths to hide his true intelligence. Mr. Brooks offers no explanation as to why Mr. Bush, or anyone, would want to do that.I’ve never met the president and have no first-hand knowledge of his mental prowess, but it seems reasonable, based on observation of the public lives of others in his family, to assume he began life with at least average intelligence, probably somewhat above average. Results of a study linking intelligence with presidential performance suggest an IQ in the 110 to 120 range is about right. Smart enough to understand the issues and to work through the complexities of governing a country as fractious as ours, but not so smart as to be distracted by having too many ideas, seeing too many solution sets. Bill Clinton was probably too smart. John Kennedy, reported IQ 117, was just right.So, lacking any information to the contrary, I’ll assume Mr. Bush entered adult life with the same intelligence as Mr. Kennedy. That’s smart enough, just like being 6 feet, 5 inches is tall enough to play professional basketball. But just as every 6-foot-5-inch person needs years of practice and competition to arrive at the level of the average NBA player, every smart young person needs years of study and observation of domestic and international problems, of watching what works and what seems not to work, years of developing character and judgment, to arrive at the point of being ready to hold high office.Mr. Bush certainly had the opportunity to follow that path. His family had the money and connections needed to get him into Yale and then into Harvard. Unfortunately, he spent those years, and many more, partying and drinking like an alcoholic. He eventually, to his great credit, gained control over his drinking, but the 20-plus years of that lifestyle are gone, and with them whatever chance he had to arrive in the Oval Office prepared to deal with the demands of the presidency.And it isn’t only the missed opportunity those lost years represent. He (and therefore we) also suffers from an inevitable consequence of years of alcohol abuse – a degree of mental impairment. Alcohol is neurotoxic. A little, so-called social drinking, may be harmless in practical terms, but heavy drinking causes measurable damage to one’s attention span and ability to concentrate fully, and often causes some degree of emotional liability, all characteristics Mr. Bush displays, if statements of former associates and employees are correct.An argument sometimes made against the connection of alcohol and brain damage is that many who drank much more that Mr. Bush showed no such change. Winston Churchill is a frequently cited example. My response is that if one begins with a broad and deep education, an open, inquiring mind, and an IQ in the genius range, the loss of 20 or 25 points from that IQ will likely not be noticed. If, however, one begins without education or curiosity and an IQ of about 117, the result will be very different.Finally, Mr. Bush’s path to recovery was aided by his faith. He has said publicly that he believes that God speaks through him. The depth of reason and judgment the office requires are not there, only his religious belief. It has been said that in a country as difficult to govern as ours, with a government based on a constitution designed to prevent any one branch from having too much power for too long, it doesn’t make much difference who we elect as president. If no other good comes from Mr. Bush’s tenure, that question at least should be put to rest.David Bacon is a resident of Aspen.