Political Animal


April 24, 2013 4:43 PM Smarts and Ideology

By Ed Kilgore

In the wake of the “reevaluation of George W. Bush” that’s capturing a rather ridiculous amount of attention this week, the sub-issue of the 43d president’s intelligence is being re-examined as well. I’m with Ezra Klein on this one: it’s entirely irrelevant to the question of whether he was a good president:

Bush was smart. Plenty of the people around him were smart. But he was a bad president. Presidential scholars rank him 38th — and, remember, there have only been 43 presidents (Barack Obama is the 44th, but his term isn’t up yet). He left office with dismal approval ratings, though he’s since rebounded from unbelievably unpopular to merely unpopular.
No industry on earth had the IQ-scores-per-capita of the financial industry in 2007. And we saw how that turned out. To see Bush’s failures — or Wall Street’s failures — as a failure of insufficient intelligence is comforting, but very wrong. These are stories about how smart people can lead themselves and others down the wrong paths. To a large degree, they wouldn’t be able to do it if they weren’t smart, but that just proves that not all mistakes are dumb, and that being smart isn’t the same thing as being wise, right or capable.

True, but let’s look at this from a somewhat different direction: how many of the decisions made by Bush that made him a bad president were the result of actual rational judgments, and how many represented the standard conservative ideology that conquered the GOP shortly before he became president and lifted him to the GOP nomination in 2000?

His 2001 tax cut offensive, which had all sorts of baleful long-term effects on the federal budget, the economy, and the well-being of Americans, was an entirely ideological project. Yes, whoever came up with the idea of selling this long-standing GOP package as a “rebate” to taxpayers who had been “overcharged” because the budget was momentarily in balance was pretty slick. But the basic decision was baked right into the cake from the moment he took office on the wings of a Supreme Court intervention.

His initial response to 9/11, and his rapid shift from a “humble” foreign policy stance to a Heavily Armed Avenger was predictable ideologically as well: conservatives didn’t have issues with international military interventions, but only with Clinton’s (as later with Obama’s) international military interventions. As for the economy, Bush’s agenda of steady deregulation of the financial industry (building on the bipartisan lurch in this direction under Clinton) and of industry generally, and his gutting of labor-law enforcement, were as predictable as you can get; any Republican with any IQ level (with the arguable exception of Ron Paul, who would have found even worse things to do) would have done exactly the same things. Similarly, his occasional attacks on the entitlement status of Medicaid, and his post-2004 Social Security privatization initiative, were revivals of moldy-oldy conservative initiatives tried before and since. His Imperial Presidency efforts tracked those of his Republican White House predecessors almost exactly.

Bush did try something marginally different in endorsing his “brain’s” (i.e., Karl Rove’s) meta-political strategy of combining a visceral appeal to conservative base voters with a highly targeted swing voter outreach effort based on No Child Left Behind, the Medicare Rx drug benefit, and immigration reform. It was actually not that different than a lot of the things Richard Nixon—whose intelligence no one doubted—tried in order to expand the GOP in his day. But while it didn’t much work, and helped gradually alienate conservatives from him and his legacy, it had relatively little to do with his second-term low approval ratings or other tokens of his “failure.” You could, I suppose, attribute his disastrous handling of Katrina to stupidity, though again, no one should discount ideology as a factor in the habit of loading up low-priority agencies like FEMA with political hacks or the impulse to resist federal assistance to a city full of those people.

That leaves the big War of Choice, Iraq. Lord knows Bush and his team exhibited a remarkably toxic combination of arrogance and short-sightedness in initiating and executing that war. But having yoked his party and his presidency to a political message of standing for moral certainty and security, not to mention anti-elitist contempt for treaties and non-military collective security measures, there’s no question Iraq became an ideological crusade for conservatives that persisted long after most “liberal hawks” and “realists” had turned against the ongoing disaster.

The bottom line is that Bush’s IQ level probably had very little to do with the course of his presidency, and had a much smaller effect than the ideology he shared with other Republicans. Given how much effort conservatives have made to disassociate themselves from Bush, and to exonerate their ideology from blame for his record, you’d think they would be the ones eager to label him as being dumb as dirt. But I guess they find it easier to blame his last name.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • ComradeAnon on April 24, 2013 5:08 PM:

    I just can't shake the image of Mel Brooks as Gov. William J. Lepetomane in Blazing Saddles when I think of W. Probably not that bad, but his near hiding since leaving office speaks volumes.

  • c u n d gulag on April 24, 2013 5:16 PM:

    W ain't stupid. He IS ignorant.

    What he used to his advantage, and knew how, are his family ties, and his shrewd and low cunning, which is like that of a typical sociopath.

    Most sociopaths aren't stupid. At least the successful ones aren't.

    They have an animal instinct that spots weakness, and knows how to take advantage of it. And, of course, a complete lack of empathy for anyone not directly associated with them.

    George W. Bush was the wrong man, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And, instead of being wise, and seeking advice from a wide varitey of more experienced people, he sought council from another sociopath - the uber-experienced Dick Cheney.

    W was Cheney's puppet.
    I smelled trouble when, after a long search, he decided to name himself as the best possible VP for the ignorant, lazy, uninterested, and inexperienced W. Cheney could spot weakness even better than W.

    And Cheney had that same degree of low cunning and shrewdness that W had - only he was the greater, and stronger, sociopath. And so, W being an Authoritarian, knew a greater sociopath, and went along with him, as Authoritarians are wont to do.

    And this country will pay for generations, for have two narcissistic and hubristic sociopaths in charge, with no empathy for anyone but themselves, at a perilous time in this country.

    W is easily the worst President in my lifetime. And I've been around for Nixon and Reagan - no slouches in being bad themselves.

    My biggest regret, is that, like Ford and Carter did with Nixon, and Clinton did with Reagan and Bush Sr, Obama didn't bring W and Cheney into court, to see if there was sufficient evidence to turn them over to The World Court, at The Hague, for trial as War Criminals.

    There was, because they were.

  • al on April 24, 2013 5:24 PM:

    "My biggest regret, is that, like Ford and Carter did with Nixon, and Clinton did with Reagan and Bush Sr, Obama didn't bring W and Cheney into court, to see if there was sufficient evidence to turn them over to The World Court, at The Hague, for trial as War Criminals."

    You must be naive. If Obama tried that, he would be impeached (take your pick for what) before leaving office, and arrested/hauled off to the Hague himself the second after he left office. And he knows it.

    It's an unwritten rule: don't ever go for the ex-president unless you want the next president to go for you later...

  • Peter C on April 24, 2013 5:33 PM:

    Ezra's piece says, "New York Times columnist David Brooks says Bush “was 60 IQ points smarter in private than he was in public.""

    I never interacted with Bush in private, but I think if a genius has an IQ of 140, then Bush's 60 point defecit, putting him with those who drop out of elementary school, describes his public appearances pretty well. I also think Brooks is a bit of a sychophant who is easily impressed.

    Sorry, I'm not buying the 'he got to the White House, he must be smart'. His dad was president, and he was the darling of the Republican Party. He didn't need smarts.

  • latts on April 24, 2013 5:43 PM:

    I know plenty of conservatives who are quite bright academically-- I won't say intellectually, because that implies a certain flexibility seldom in evidence-- but they prefer to believe stupid things. It's about culture, mostly, and few people really critique cultural influences, but it's also emotion and adaptability and realistic assessments of risk and all kinds of unconscious reactions and influences. Ultimately, it's a question of character IMHO-- I don't have high confidence in the broader judgment of any conservative, although IME they're often spot-on with their social instincts.

  • rdale on April 24, 2013 6:04 PM:

    A nice antidote to the Dubya "nostalgia" that's all the rage these days. The only decent thing he's ever done in his life is keep his fool yap shut since 2008. Conservatives always remind me of the White Queen, who said when she was young she would always believe six impossible things before breakfast each day.

  • xpara on April 24, 2013 6:11 PM:

    Cunning, sly, slick, sociopathically amoral, willfully ignorant, mentally lazy, cowardly. Bush is all of those things, but stupid he is not. His laziness made him ignore the warnings about bin Laden until 9/11 gobsmacked him, and sent him skedaddling in panic to a NORAD bunker far from coastal danger. His cunning, aided by a kick in the pants from Cheney and a script from Rove that conned a failing press, made him--remarkably--an instant hero tramping through the wreckage of the Twin Towers and vowing revenge on the terrorist in chief he had blithely ignored. His amorality paved the way (again with a boost from Cheney) in invading Iraq lest the public realize the size of his 9/11 blunder. These draft-dodging con artists didn't give a fig about U.S. military casualties. They cared not at all about the devastation wrought on Iraqi. Oh, sure, they planned to grab the oil. But the real reason they abandoned Afghanistan for Iraq was to divert the public with the pose as a tough war president long enough to win reelection. It was so monstrous, so amoral, that most Americans, even the Shrub haters, have understandable failed to grasp his utter moral, not his mental,failure.

  • c u n d gulag on April 24, 2013 6:32 PM:

    I understand.
    Believe me, I understand!

  • S.W. Anderson on April 24, 2013 6:57 PM:

    "His 2001 tax cut offensive, which had all sorts of baleful long-term effects on the federal budget, the economy, and the well-being of Americans, was an entirely ideological project."

    No, it wasn't an entirely ideological exercise. George W went to the White House determined not to let a weak, stagflation-blighted economy ruin his chance to get re-elected, the way that dirty duo had ruined his father's chance for a second term. In the best Keynesian tradition -- one practiced over decades by presidents of both parties, BTW -- Bush acted repeatedly to stimulate the economy and engender warm, fuzzy feelings for him on the part of the electorate. But unlike his predecessors, Bush went for it Texas size by demanding gargantuan tax cuts, one after another. By the time the economy imploded, it was like an exhausted, punch-drunk fighter who had gone too long on elevated adrenaline.

  • T-Rex on April 24, 2013 6:59 PM:

    xpara: Re willingness to sacrifice countless lives for cynical personal advantage, ever since we went into Iraq I kept thinking of the Father Brown story by Chesterton called "The Sign of the Broken Sword." If you haven't read it, do.

    As for Bush's IQ, stupid is as stupid does. I don't care how he scores on tests of very dubious scientific validity. I care that he refused to think things through carefully, plan his actions, consider their consequences, or display so much as a glimmer of regret when they all went wrong. He says he'd do it all the same way again, and the scary part is that he would. In practical terms, he and Cheney were the two stupidest men ever entrusted with world power.

  • emjayay on April 24, 2013 7:19 PM:

    Well put xpara.

    Other than Nixon, two presidents in my lifetime deserved to be impeached and convicted: Nixon, who would have been convicted I guess although his offenses were really sort of minor, and Reagan, whose offenses were clearly in the "high crimes" category and beyond. Plus I suppose GW Bush, who did a lot of horrible anti-demoocratic in the direction of fascism stuff but the picture is kind of complex. Oddly, only one president was impeached but shouldn't have in any way been, but at least public opinion seems to get that.

    But for some reason the wingnuts keep screaming Impeach Obama all the time. For the life of me I can never figure out any reason, and I doubt that they have one either. The only bad stuff he has done (for example drone-related) is what the wingnuts would have done themselves, at minimum.

  • Sean Scallon on April 24, 2013 7:24 PM:

    "with the arguable exception of Ron Paul, who would have found even worse things to do"

    You mean like not starting a war in Iraq? The horror.

  • DRF on April 24, 2013 8:15 PM:

    No question that smarts alone won't make one a good President, but I'd rather have someone in that office who is smart than one who isn't. While GWB wasn't stupid, he clearly was a mediocre intellect, certainly compared to Obama and Clinton. It's hard to imagine either Obama or Clinton mismanaging the Iraq situation the way that Bush did, in large part because he let Cheney and Rumsfeld, along with the neocons, control the agenda. A really smart President would have been seeking outside opinions, would have done a much better job of analyzing and challenging assumptions, etc.

  • Yastreblyansky on April 24, 2013 8:59 PM:

    Peter C,--David Brooks has some serious math anxiety himself and no idea what it means to say "60 IQ points". All he really meant was "sounds like he could have read some of my stuff".

    C U N D, I think you've got it: cheerful ignorance (he could have known things if he wanted, he just couldn't be arsed) and sociopathy (inability to recognize any human needs other than his own). There are plenty of high IQ people like that, and low IQ people too. It's not brains that made or unmade him but that nasty indifference.

  • jkl; on April 24, 2013 9:26 PM:

    He thoroughly and proudly led the demise of the US....
    that's the lasting burden on this man.
    Our first truly intellectually challenged president?
    That was the part he seemed to strive to play.
    Not one can prove that wrong. Fiscal crisis? Illegal and immoral war? Broken elections? Banana Republic? One party state? Endless deceptive propaganda with think tanks and Armstrong Williams? Texas swagger? Influencing the Iraq elections? Assault on social security? Police state and imperial delusions? Indices of decline? Orwellian speak? First responders urged by Michael Brown to not respond to hurricane areas unless dispatched by state and local authorities? Eating cake with McCain in Arizona and several days later flying over New Orleans--"Sir--you're not telling me you just learned the folks at the Convention Center don't have food and water until today, are you?"
    Katrina flood waters? Spinning reality--WMD? Cheney as VP? Major market intrusion in 2008 after causing economic meltdown?
    The National Intelligence COuncil noting that the war in Iraq created a breeding ground for the next generation of professional terrorists?
    An administration not telling the truth about national security threats, i.e., Tom Ridge?
    The destruction of Falluja?
    President Bush should be held accountable.

    Painting his body parts post-presidency--compare skills and legacies to Clinton and to Carter.
    Reading Pet Goat while the country was attacked. Don't ever believe he kept the US safe--9/11 happened on George Bush's watch.
    Sorry for errors or craziness--it's a flow of consciousness from the desk tonight.

  • jkl; on April 24, 2013 10:23 PM:

  • James M on April 24, 2013 11:36 PM:

    @Peter C on April 24, 2013 5:33 PM:

    "Sorry, I'm not buying the 'he got to the White House, he must be smart'. His dad was president, and he was the darling of the Republican Party. He didn't need smarts."

    Peter C, believe me, I am as anti-Bush as anyone you know: probably more so. My constant rants against GW got in me in trouble at work. However, much as I hate to admit it, George Bush is a smart guy. First, he did get the White House, which is an extraordinarily difficult task. Just look at the all the brilliant and talented people who have failed.

    Also, he graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School. Granted, his connections may have gotten him in to both places, but I assure you that an idiot or simpleton cannot graduate from either of those institutions. In fact, the thing about GWB that was so bad is the fact that he was NOT stupid: just criminally lazy and uninterested in the things that mattered most.

  • jkl; on April 25, 2013 9:17 AM:

    Just heard him on television again as I got online.
    His ability to express himself is clearly as impaired as ever.
    Just listening to him talk yet again of the importance of the 'homeland' having to be safe, saying 'all it takes is one time'---after his administration's outright neglect prior to 9/11--is jarring. Orwellianly so.

    I certainly do not regard him as intellectual, or smart... no way.
    Lots of men have pull due to long-standing, far-reaching family contacts, and preferences given at schools, businesses, corporate boards, air national guard, etc--

  • zandru on April 25, 2013 9:57 AM:

    "Richard Nixon—whose intelligence no one doubted"

    Well, they don't call him "Young Ezra" for nothing. I was there, as they say, and everything I've read on Nixon from the 1970s onward, from biography to commentary, describes him as a "mediocre intelligence."

    When he was President, Nixon was never thought of as particularly bright. Literally everyone "doubted his intelligence." I'm not sure what Young Ezra has been reading lately.

  • dave on April 26, 2013 10:05 AM:

    I've read many times in the past decade that GWB was "smart", but I never see any evidence offered to support that conclusion. I also never met the man, so can't offer a personal anecdote. I've never read or heard anything to support the thought that he was anything other than of average intelligence (i.e., the average intelligence of all Americans; and witness the kind of politicians that they have voted into office in recent years!).