Many years ago, my wife worked at a law firm that employed a man I’ll call the Popcorn Guy as an office gofer. He was slovenly and grossly overweight, but laughed a lot, and so seemed to get along, more or less, with the staff. They even gave him so sort of employee award at some company dinner or other. Management had nice things to say about the Popcorn Guy’s cheerfulness as they awarded him.
Being nearly as low on the totem pole as the Popcorn Guy, my wife had a different perspective. To her eyes, the Popcorn Guy was always angry about something, had a very difficult time taking even basic instruction, and was all and all not a pleasant person. Once, they got some sort of office popcorn maker to which one added oil as well as popcorn (hot air evidently not having been invented yet). The Popcorn Guy asks – doesn’t look at the instructions, just asks – how much oil to put in. Several people say some tiny amount, along the lines of a tablespoon or two. Popcorn Guy proceeds to put in several times that amount of oil, pops a bowl and eats the greasy results with no fear anyone else will want any.
Management wanted him to be some sort of jolly fat guy, a colorful and lovable character, and so they pretended he was and failed to see he wasn’t. A little while later, he was let go. Don’t know what precipitated his firing, but it seems management’s view of the Popcorn Guy caught up with the understanding of those who actually worked elbow to elbow with him.
No profound insights or anything here, just an observation: not only are we sorely tempted to see what we want to see, we tend to understand people’s behaviors against whatever slot we’ve put them in. We’re able to reinterpret away behavior that would otherwise contradict our pre-judgement. At least, until we can’t.
My own interpersonal skills and impulse control, while within ‘normal’ ranges for a 20th century man, are not particularly good, probably below the mean (pretending here that we could measure such things numerically in some non-farcical way. But you get the drift.). I seem to function OK. But I sometimes wonder if my role isn’t something like the child who points out the Emperor is naked, not because I have any superior insight, but just because a lot of the posturing goes right over my head. Or I’m just kidding myself – it would be hard for me to tell, wouldn’t it?
Saw that our president was catching flak over having misspelled “Philippines” in a tweet, complete with grave ponderings over what it means that such a careless person holds the reigns of power. As a somewhat spelling-challenged person, I’ll point out that Philippines is not only a tricky word to spell, but it’s one of those evil words that doesn’t look wrong when you misspell it. Anyway, I have a difficult time extrapolating from misspelled tweets to Apocalyptic Danger. Spelling errors in informal communications don’t shake the foundations of my world, even when the president makes them.
This brings to mind Dubya’s constant mispronunciation of “nuclear”. For people who assumed, contrary to all evidence, that Bush the Younger was singularly stupid for a politician, this common mispronunciation was maddening proof – a moron stole the election from Gore the Brilliant!! Woe and Ruin!! I, not really caring much beyond being happy that with Bush as president, at least the arrogant hypocrite tool wasn’t (I take comfort where I can), saw an Old Money Blue Blood Yankee with elite Ivy education playing a calculated card: my supporters, for most part, either mispronounce “nuclear” themselves or have loved ones who do so. Therefore, it will make me seem more like them (along with the fake-ish Southern accent and cowboy boots). That it will only infuriate those who would never support me anyway is also a plus – makes my opponents look like petty weasels to my base. Win-win!
As far as intelligence – an admittedly hard to define idea – goes, seemed to me that, of the presidents during my adult life, Reagan and Dubya were similarly intelligent – pretty darn smart, Bush the Elder was a little smarter, Clinton was very, very smart – and Carter and Obama were clearly less smart. I say this based on their actual achievements and having heard them speak *off the cuff*. Let’s take them one by one:
Carter seemed completely overwhelmed as president from day one, like all it would take is a well-timed ‘boo!’ or a stiff breeze to cause him to collapse in a heap. What came out of his mouth off-script was often sheer nonsense. We – I include my 18-yr old self, who voted for him – tended to overlook that because he seemed like a good man with his heart in the right place. But objectively? A muddle-headed do-gooder (a dangerous type to have in power!) who was way over his head as president. His post-president role with Habitat for Humanity seems much more suited to his skill level.
Reagan got his big breaks by being tall, good looking and having a super-sized dollop of ah-shucks boyish charm. The intelligence kicks in when he played that hand to stardom, presidency of the Screen Actor’s Guild, governor of California and then the Presidency. Because, frankly, that’s just not that good of a hand. Thousands of people who never made it in Hollywood had that hand, and more. Reagan was also able to express himself very well on or off script. He seemed to have a deep understanding of where he stood on things, and was able to get it across. That’s no mean skill.
People loved or hated Reagan because he consistently said the big ‘No’: No, this whole Progressive thing isn’t on the Right Side of History, but on the murdering, impoverishing, enslaving side – as history itself shows. And they knew, in their hearts, it was true. Can’t get any more heroic/hateful than that! And then he went and succeeded, pretty much. And the Soviet Union fell.
So Reagan has his own wing on Mt. Olympus or bolgia in Hell – take your pick.
Bush the Elder is by all accounts a very smart man, and an honest to goodness war hero for which he will always have my respect. His big break was being born into the Bush family. At least early on, there seems to have been a strong kicked-out-of-the-nest go-do-something-with-your-life ethic in the Bush tribe, with of course the advantage of old money being able to kick down doors. Again, as in the case of Reagan, that’s a good start, but not enough, at least at the Bush family’s level of wealth. That’ll get you opportunities and maybe promotions, but won’t make you a lot richer or get you elected to Congress. Bush played the hand he was dealt quite well.
Unlike Reagan (or even, to some extent, his own son), H.W. doesn’t give the impression of a clear-headed True Believer. One always suspects he’s not saying what he really thinks. I think that’s part of the reason he seems to babble off-text. All in all, I have the least clear impression of Bush the Elder than of any other presidents on this list, except that he’s not stupid by any stretch.
Clinton is the clear intelligence winner on this list, it seems to me. Very smart man. I will here mention what should be obvious: intelligence doesn’t equal goodness, or in fact have all that much to do with it. I don’t like smart presidents any more than less smart ones for that fact alone. It’s just one item in a mix.
Clinton got few breaks aside from being very, very smart, and charming as all get out, which gifts he played to the hilt. He gets the Don King ‘dug myself out of the damn ground just to reach the starting line’ award here. Both his academic achievements and the way he managed his political career speak of one very sharp dude. Greedy, unscrupulous, dishonest, manipulative, self-destructive – sure. But way smart.
Dubya seems like a pretty typical Ivy dude trying hard to pass as a normal human being. As the ‘nuclear’ story illustrates, I think there’s a calculated side to him that his critics seems to always miss. You have to be pretty smart to carry that off convincingly enough to get elected president, which he did twice. Plus the stories about him assigning nicknames to everyone shows a man with a clear grasp of how one reinforces Alpha-male status. You are what he says you are, no matter how playfully it may seem. Frat bro trick.
As hinted at above, I think Dubya really truly believes – something. If he were clear-headed enough to allow the thought to crystalize, probably something along the lines that he and his kind really, really need to be in charge – for our own good. Nothing scares people accustomed to generational leadership and control more than the idea that we don’t actually need generational leadership and control. But I’m not sure how Bush understands this, just that he seems motivated by convictions of some sort.
Aside: politics comes from culture which comes from family, so nothing could be more natural than for an old family to suppose that they must be in control, since 1) they and their peers are families; and 2) they are cultured and carriers and transmitters of culture. But a good, solid culture coming from good solid families doesn’t need for some elite to be in control of politics generation after generation. Politics exists as an expression of the need to protect and promote family and the community life that results from family. Once personal rights got severed from family and community rights and duties, we were doomed. How we reestablish those connections, if they can be reestablished, is the big question. Onward:
If it weren’t for Trump, Obama would be the president with the widest chasm between what people think of him – project on him, really – and what he really seems to be. My take is tainted, perhaps, by having spent far too much time in and around colleges and schools. What I see, and saw the first time I watched O in action, was every star pupil, every teacher’s pet, I’d ever known rolled up into one.
What I see is the Warren G. Harding of this generation, except without Harding’s humble self-awareness. Harding, it seems, was aware on some level that he had no business being president, that his wife and friends and cronies had put him up to it because, frankly, he looked and sounded like a president:
Obama strikes me as what happens when a kid has been patted on the head his whole life and told what a smart boy he is. He comes to believe it. Coupled with his good looks, photogenic family and decent (wildly overrated, IMO) oratory skills, all he lacked was Harding’s big break – somebody else to decide he’d make a good president. Good for that somebody else, at least.
O is no better than Dubya at speaking off script. It is very telling how Dubya’s mistakes off the cuff were reported as harbingers of the End Times, while O’s equally goofy mistakes were nothing to be alarmed at. If we were honest, we’d know it’s very, very difficult when speaking off the cuff to keep it clean and clear. Most of the time, such stumbles should carry little if any weight. It’s a rare gift to not stumble around when put on the spot like that. (Netanyahu seems to have it, or just rehearses very, very thoroughly. Small sample size.)
The praises heaped upon Obama’s oratory and brilliance have seemed wildly hyperbolic from the start. This is a brilliant man and orator for the ages? Truly, projection in the service of wish fulfillment has no bounds.
Nope, nothing in O’s history or performance suggests anything above a high-normal intelligence – right about where I’d place Dubya. He’s a smart man, but nothing special, EXCEPT he grew up in an academic world, with an academic for a mom and grandparents, and academic aspirations and expectations.
Just as Dubya’s family expected him to get through school – Ivy, of course – and then get out and get on with making something of himself, O’s family expected him to do well in school – Ivy, of course – and then aspire to something approved of by academics. So he became a professor, then, after the degenerate hopes and dreams of modern academia, a community organizer.
As mentioned above, I’ve spent a lot of time around academics, both as a student and socially (I even stepped in to co-teach a college class once. I should tell that story sometime.) Since I got out of highschool, I’ve routinely signed up for classes wherever I could – my transcripts look insane! I’ve gotten credits from at least 7 institutions (off the top of my head). Hung around with a Stanford crowd for a couple years – choir – including a number of elite professors. And:
Academics – and there are of course exceptions – are among the most hypersensitive egomaniacs I’ve ever run across. This is in inverse proportion to the ‘hardness’ of their specialties: Math professors are comfortable in their skins, accounting profs can be. They know that their positions depend on objectively verifiable and valuable expertise. Business ethicists? (Yes, I had to take that class.) My sample brooked NO challenges, while of course presenting as laid back, open-minded and above all FAIR. Comp Lit? Right. These types know that, really, there are a lot of people who could do the part of their job of any value, and that they got that job only due to luck or the fact that they gave the hiring committee the most boxes to check off.
And don’t even go there with various ‘studies’ professors. Yikes. They know deep inside that not only did they get their job to fill some quota, nothing they know or teach has any intrinsic value to anybody. That’s why they’re so loud – can’t give the small quiet voice any chance to be heard.
So: when I meet academics – and, let’s be clear, I tend to like academics, they’re often very interesting if you get them talking – I start wondering. I don’t immediately go to: this is a member of the intellectual elite, to whom I owe some obsequious bows. I think: here’s a guy who might know something interesting about some narrow field or other, and, to paraphrase Chesterton, was smart enough to get the degree and dull enough to want it.
So, back to O. I’m not impressed that he was a professor of constitutional law. Of all the areas of law, that’s the one closest to philosophy and farthest from real life. Thus, susceptible to conquest by posers. Show me something. Second, give me a guy who has run a corner store in a iffy neighborhood over a community organizer, if I want someone who understand the downtrodden. So, not impressed. O would not dominate the faculty lounge, nor could time in the ‘hood be expected to teach him anything – he expects to teach them.
But what O did do, like Harding, is attract the attention of ambitious people. The people who run Chicago. People who know how to get things done. People who know *ahem* how to get people elected. Unlike Harding, O seems to believe his own PR.
Finally, Trump sure polarizes people, so that folks like me, who don’t think he’s either some glorious savior nor the the new He Who Shall Not Be Named, have to explain, it seems, why we don’t love or hate him the proper amount. Because, ultimately, he’s just a guy? Who will be president for at most 8 years? Who has given no indication he has any plans for internment camps nor mass deportations? (Unlike Antifa, which has announced its deep hope for a chance to kill a few tens of millions like other good Communists. But I digress…)
Cunning is the word that springs to mind when considering Trump. He’s certainly no dummy, as he will happily tell you. I worry more that he’s a true believer – in Trump. As mentioned in other posts, he went from old school New York liberal to crusading conservative with whiplash-inducing suddenness. What gives me the most hope: his ultimate agenda seems to be to stick it to the people who pooh-poohed him – and, frankly, I’m on board with that. As also mentioned elsewhere here, he seems to make the right heads explode.
And, if we accept spite and vengeance as the operative premise, the dude is very, very cunning. As far as intelligence goes, there are many different flavors, and looking to the one Trump is working with here, he’s a genius. He wouldn’t, and doesn’t, get any respect in the faculty lounge, but as a wheeler-dealer street-brawler type huckster, he’s absolutely brilliant.
The above opinions are worth what you paid for them.