For obvious reasons, there is considerable discussion going on about how much a candidate should know in order to be a credible candidate for the presidency. The Constitution imposes no I.Q. test. But it was written at a time when many Founders read and sometimes even spoke classical Greek and Latin, were products of the Enlightenment, and knew history and, in the case of Jefferson and others, science and a whole range of things. There was an unwritten and unspoken assumption of intelligence.

Holding national office these days is way more complicated. Economics, including fiscal and monetary policies, is global and interwoven. Unlike the simpler, black and white Cold War days, foreign policy is multi-layered and gray and plaid. Security is about a lot more than counting missiles, planes, and tanks and increasing military spending.

No individual can know all these things, the argument goes, so let’s look for a leader who has good judgment and picks the right people to listen to. There is much to be said for this. But we all know it takes a pretty keen mind, honed by study, travel, experience, and exposure to competing ideas, to form good judgment and to know whom to trust on complex substantive issues. Neither Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, nor John Kennedy were intellectual giants. But the keenness of their respective minds was revealed every day. And they were not threatened by smart people around them.

A leader must be able to see farther ahead than most others, must generate creative new ideas and policies for new challenges and times, and must be able to convince the rest of us to try those ideas. A leader must have an inquisitive and inquiring mind. National leaders are rarely those who force a complex world into a simple orthodox box and refuse to look outside it.

Most of all it is the combination of commitment to historic principles and ideals, those at the core of Western civilization and our Constitution and Bill or Rights, and openness to consideration of innovative solutions to emerging new challenges and realities within the framework of those principles that marks the great leader. It is for each of us to decide which of the candidates comes closest to meeting this standard.

21 Responses to “Should a President Be Intelligent?”

  1. Ken Dean Says:

    Excellent description of what a good President should be, ability to grasp the known and unknown, the seen and unseen, and understand most origins and directions of the historical currents in both realities.

    Today’s culture lives by a candy wrapper, which in a day or two (if not an hour or two) is replaced by another candy wrapper, and then replaced by another. The process stays there. Know this is a tad harsh and not fully accurate. However, outer appearances and outer packaging, seldom reveal and often hide and blur the real content buried within. Our whole culture swirls in this illusion of outer appearances on too many topics. Politics, Religion, Economics to name three.

    A good President understands this. Worked for a candidate back in 1984 and 1988 who really knew this better than anyone i have met, then or since.

  2. N. Bramblett Says:

    What we really need, and have needed for quite a while, is a leader with the qualities of Gary Hart – someone capable of thinking broadly, deeply, and beyond the next sound bite.

  3. wsp Says:

    Thank you Sen. Hart for your continued insight but moreso for your optimism. A leader in today’s era of extreme bipartisanship must first and foremost must have the courage and conviction to do what he/she believes is right, at whatever cost. The three men you have mentioned above possessed these quaiities. It is no coincidence that during their terms, benefits to all mankind were realized.

  4. Andy Says:

    Intelligence doesn’t equate to leadership. Leaders must inspire and motivate. Leaders must move us to a better place and they must help us understand that while America is quite divided on several key issues, we are mostly in agreement on the most basic of issues and ideals. However, in general, Americans don’t feel that they are all on the same team but instead bicker for control within. Such is the lot of a superpower when there is no credible internal or outside threat. The current economic situation I would have hoped provide that internal threat. 9/11 was another outside threat. Our leadership squandered both, dare I say, opportunities to move the country forward.

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    I don’t disagree with Andy. In fact the blog specifically lists as an aspect of leadership the ability to convince citizens at large of the need to try new
    policies to address new realities. And I agree wholeheartedly with the need to use setbacks–depressions, attacks, and so forth–as the occasion to appeal to our better angels and collective aspirations.

  6. Bill Pruden Says:

    As a life time educator, I would suggest that while intelligence is critically important for any governmental leader, even more important is high level analytical ability and the capacity to think critically and creatively, to put the intelligence to work, developing thoughtful responses to the problems society faces. As Senator Hart points out, Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Truman were not brilliant men. However, each possessed an incisive intellect and was able to use it to develop responses to the myriad of problems they encountered. Senator Hart embodied those same virtues as a Senator and the thoughtful programs and vision he offered as a candidate for President reflected the application of his own considerable intelligence to the nation’s challenges. We need to see that in our current candidates, but pressure for that approach must come from “we the people.” We need to demand that of those who seek office and seek our trust. The coming year, 2012, marks the centennial of arguably the most well articulated, well presented programmatic choices the country has even seen. Under the banner of the “New Freedom,” the “New Nationalism,” Woodrow Wilson, the only president with an earned doctorate and Theodore Roosevelt, an accomplished and widely published historian and author (among other things) offered thoughtful and distinct visions of progressive reform, while Republican nominee William Howard Taft, a one-time law professor and well regarded legal advocate and judge who would later serve as Chief Justice of the United States, offered a forceful defense of the status quo. Even the fourth party candidate, Socialist Eugene Debs, was article and thoughtful in the extreme. These men offered the American people a distinctive set of well articulated and thoughtfully presented choices from which the people could make a reasoned choice. A repeat of such an approach would serve all of us. It is not too late for the people to make clear that we want such a campaign.

  7. robby robinson Says:

    Let’s see, Gary. You write that John Kennedy was not an “intellectual giant”? What is the midget-giant scale being referred to here? IQ? EQ? GQ? And to which “intellectual giant” (or giants)are you comparing him?
    Check out “intellectual” and “inteligence” on Wikepedia and reconsider adding him to your list of giants.

  8. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    But can we discern between intelligence and leadership? Yes we CAN! We have before, haven’t we? As you mentioned, Kennedy, Roosevelt and Truman. And Woodrow Wilson too. So why NOT now? Well, its really up to us isn’t it? This Republican ‘light” crew is really a reflection of where we’re at right now. These men (and women) who would be President. Don’t seem to have a clue about reality or the world in the 21st Century, do they? Scary isn’t it? It SHOULD be! This man (or woman) is going to have to deal with the world in the 21st Century. And you know what? They’re literally not ready for prime time players! It IS up to us to decide who leads us. That’s what democracy is all about. WE the PEOPLE. So how come this group of current Republican candidates hasn’t been turned down yet? Hm. Interesting. We HAVE an intelligent, competent President in Barack Obama. Why is he being repudiated? Well for one thing, the economy is not responding quickly enough for most folks. A LOT of folks are working hard, and having very little to show for it. They play by the rules, do the right thing but security eludes them. So. WHO do they blame? The guy in charge of course! But if you look at it rationally, Mr. Obama CAN’T have caused this. Not on his own! Well then, WHY didn’t he fix it? Hm. Again. Interesting. Well for ONE thing the Republican ‘obstructionists’ who made it impossible for his programs to get through. And so-called Democrats who SHOULD have been there but weren’t. So now, three years in and we have a President in peril. Who SHOULDN’T be. We as a nation have a really important decision to make next year. Do we go forward? Or back? I for one refuse to go back. And by the way Gary, YOU would have made a great President!

  9. Gary Hart Says:

    It is interesting the number of comments taking issue here, and on Huffington Post, with my qualification that Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy were not intellectual giants. Of course, compared to Pres. Reagan, and Bush II, John Kennedy was Einstein. That’s not the point.
    John Kennedy would have been the first to say he was not an “intellectual giant”. Why is this so problematic? I was not denigrating any of the three, but simply pointing out that, by comparison to the current crop, they all fit the mold of what a first rate presidential intellect ought to be. This blog
    set about to establish the mental qualities that political leaders ought to possess. Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy all had them. So calm down, Mr. Robinson.

  10. Nancy Lee Says:

    Of course a president should be intelligent. Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy were by no means stupid. However, it should be noted that during their administrations there were some intelligent Republicans. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but once upon a time, before the tea party, before Reagan, there were moderate and even liberal Republicans who were well informed and willing to compromise on issues for the good of the country.

  11. Abel Quintana Says:

    Thank you Gary for bringing up this question…. I think we are failing to point out the obvious, there is too much at stake in electing an unqualified president solely to unseat a president that is disliked but doing a good job.

  12. Brian C McCarthy Says:

    Part of the problem is the anti-intellectualism that has taken hold in some branches of the Republican Party, certainly the Religious Right and the Tea Party. Some re-write school textbooks to comply with their theological beliefs rather than proven scientific facts, others rail against medical vaccines based on their own junk science. Millions believe, against all evidence, that the president is a Muslim and/or was born in another country, despite his Hawaiian birth certificate and long-time membership in the United Church of Christ. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but no one is entitled to his own facts,” would be horrified at the way facts are now routinely made up and believed to suit the political purposes of the one offering them. Of course the president should be intelligent, but being the smartest guy in the room is unfortunately no longer seen as a good thing in some circles.

  13. Sam Kepfield Says:

    To ask the question is but to answer it. Of course intelligence is important, but it’s not just a matter of IQ points. I think it’s whether a person values knowledge for its own sake — do they do more than the assigned reading in college, and do they continue to read and ask questions after they get their degree?

    Harry Truman is a good example. He was the last President without a college degree, but he had one thing that is absolutely essential — a desire for knowledge. He constantly read, and deeply — classics like Virgil and Cato (in the original Greek and Latin, which he also learned). “There’s nothing new under the sun except the history you don’t know,” is one of his best quotes. If only some of our recent Presidents had his knowledge of history, and the ability to realize it and the drive to correct it.

    Intelligence is important, and is it dismaying to see that it is scoffed at by certain elements of the religious-cultural right in this country who trust “common sense” and “gut instinct” over some measure of learning.

    Thank you, Senator, for the continuing posts on our country and culture. Keep it up.

  14. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    If Jesus Christ were to run for President today, the current pack of Pharisees would flay him alive for being the son of an unwed teen-aged mother, for consorting with sinners, prostitutes, and the poor, and for telling the wealthy and powerful that they would have to give up their power and wealth to gain a place in his administration. What do you think that his programs for the poor, the meek, and the sick would look like? How do you think that his campaign “platform” of the Beatitudes would go over with the current political establishment? He would be branded a “socialist” and would be crucified all over again. We call ourselves a “Christian” nation, but act more like Rome did in Jesus’ day that Rome did.

  15. Gary Hart Says:

    On reflection, I owe an apology to those, like Mr. Robinson, who took my comment about Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy not being “intellectual giants” as a current-day back-hand slap suggesting they were less than intelligent. Not my point at all. I meant it literally, not as a slight. I served with only one person who might be considered an “intellectual” and that was Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Pat would have been the first to deny being an “intellectual giant.” We all, myself included, do the best we can with what intelligence God gave us. We also only wish all those seeking the presidency would do the same thing.

  16. Kevin Worden Says:

    Empathy, a visceral feeling for the meta-trends of a nation, and the ability to connect with a people is another form of intelligence unto itself. I argue that for traditional intellectual heft to be maximally effective, it must be coupled with an ability to engage with constituents at the level they are at, and the capacity to “nudge” the body politic toward the desired future course that the leader’s intellect discerns. If one is too far ahead of the populace, they will be deemed irrelevant and out-of-touch (think of the unfair “Governor Moonbeam” characterization). If one is simply following the trends and preferences of their constituents, that person has failed to lead.

  17. Tom Gleason Says:

    Sound advice, Gary. In 2008, too many voters accepted vague promises of “hope and change” and now regret that they didn’t give more thought to the substance and charcter of the candidate they supported. By every standard of presidential leadership you describe, Barack Obama has been a total failure.

  18. Gary Hart Says:

    I’m afraid Mr. Gleason and I must have a different reading of my own blog. Any objective analysis of what I wrote would find that President Obama possesses many, if not all, the attributes our nation has looked for in leaders over its history. However one defines intelligence, one would be very hard pressed to find a Republican candidate (we will make no reference to this president’s predecessor) that substantially exceeds President Obama in thoughtfulness, historical perspective, critical analysis, and judgment. One may fault this president, and I do, in his selection of certain key advisors, many from previous Democratic administrations, but a judgment of “total failure” is way wide of the mark. A fair reading of the specifics of Mr. Obama’s campaign policies will find that he offered much more of substance than “hope and change” (a snide S. Palin rendering). Sadly, he and we inherited a nation in very serious trouble due to the real failures of previous years.

  19. Paul G Says:

    As we peacefully assemble this Thanksgiving, let’s occupy our thoughts with prayers for leadership to restore our republic while reducing our profit-mongering empire-cop presence in 130+ countries; to come home to a renewal of our commitment to the principles and ideals at the core of our Constitution and Bill or Rights; to rededicate ourselves as Lincoln dedicated the full measure of his life to secure our lives, livelihoods and liberties for us and future generations. Such ageless leadership is an occupation worthy of our eternal reflection and Thanksgiving.

    http://boingboing.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/385212_2458701281215_1662654569_2288667_1671722920_n.jpg

  20. Jim Engelking Says:

    Paul G said it well. Our fellow citizens are peacefully assembling in Civic Center and at public meting places in cities and towns across our nation and around the world. I just over two months, we the people have stood up to the power structure of corporate government so effectively that it has responded violently to crush us before we become too strong to dominate. How we respond will show us who we are.

    I have observed the Presidencies of those mentioned here from FDR onward. The vilification of BHO pales in comparison with that heaped upon HST, and FDR and JFK suffered continuing, brutal, personal attacks from the entrenched interests. That is why change is hard–those in power will never yield for the common good. We the people must be willing to defeat them in political battle. That is the essence of democracy.

    I am thankful that it is still possible to reform America. In August 2008, and older, conservative Kansas lawyer stood in our kitchen before breakfast and remarked: “When he is elected (meaning Barack Obama), he’ll have such a mess on his hands, he won’t be able to fix it in two terms.” President Obama has the intelligence, but lacks the support of the Congress, and syffers from the determined and hateful opposition and obstruction of the Republicans. Will each of us, and will his own partisans in Congress give this 50-year old man who does not look like most of us the support he needs to be successful for all of us?

  21. Pat Boice Says:

    Too busy during the celebration of Thanksgiving and my husband’s 90th birthday, with 19 family members present to read this blog! I always read and enjoy and don’t think I’ve disagreed much, if at all, with Sen. Hart’s blog! This one is especially pertinent. And to Mr. Engelking – you also hit the nail on the head, as far as I’m concerned. President Obama certainly qualifies as highly intelligent, curious and visionary – I will vote for him again without hesitation. I’m just re-reading Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in which he describes “an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.” The current Religious Right/Tea Party, anti-intellectualism seems to fit right in to this description.

Leave a Reply

All comments are reviewed by a moderator prior to approval and are subject to the UCD blog use policy.