Presidents of the 20th Century and Their Intellect 2-16-09

Presidents of the 20th Century and Their Intellect

On President’s Day


Richard J. Garfunkel

February 16, 2009


Today I am a guest on Bob Marrone’s morning show to be one of WVOX radio’s resident experts on FDR, and the presidency, as the station commemorates “Presidents’ Day.” Though many believe that this day is now officially named Presidents’ Day they are wrong. The law, HR 15951, which was signed in 1968, officially shifted Washington’s Birthday to the 3rd Monday in February. It came into affect on January 1, 1971, during the administration of the late and unlamented Richard Nixon, who named it Presidents’ Day. Well the official bill to change the name to Washington-Lincoln Day failed in Congress, and even though “Tricky Dickie” renamed it Presidents’ Day, the change was never signed into law.


In fact, there is no official way to even spell Presidents Day or Presidents’ Day. The only one clear fact is that under federal law it is still Washington’s Birthday and that only a handful of states have changed it to Presidents’ Day. Therefore, Washington’s Birthday, which was enacted as a federal holiday in 1880, in the District of Columbia, and was expanded to the nation in 1895, still remains. The holiday was first celebrated in 1796, the last year our first President was in office, but because when Washington was born, the old style calendar was in use, and many celebrated his birthday both on February 11th and February 22nd, the generally recognized birthday of the “Father of Our Country.” Aside from all of that this past Thursday was the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln and his birthday was never celebrated in any of the states south of the Mason-Dixon Line.


I am glad people still think seriously about the IQ and mental health of our leaders. It would surprise me greatly, and almost everyone else I have known, that George W. Bush was reported to have an IQ near JFK. If George W. Bush has IQ of 115 and that sounds reasonable, then Bill Clinton has one of 215. I know of no example that George W. Bush has ever read a book of any consequence and he was by all accounts a barely passing student in college (560 Verbal on his SATs and a legacy!). I do not know what his core curriculum was, or whether he just didn't care, as many rich boys (and poor boys) don't. But, all in all, it is the poor boys that must excel to succeed. Certainly Bill Clinton was a poor boy, and he excelled, was incredibly well read, and his language and overall skills reflected that intellect. Yes, he was flawed, like many of us.


But, all in all, good political leaders do not have to be intellects, and in a sense the public has a tendency to mistrust them. Certainly Stevenson was labeled an “egg head” and the country rejected him, by wide margins, over the affable, but non-intellectual Dwight Eisenhower, who favored Zane Grey western novels as a way to intellectually test his gray matter or just relax. He spent more days on vacation, and away from work then any President, except maybe Calvin Coolidge or GW Bush in his term up to 9/11.


Jack Kennedy was a bright, and talented young man, who had many more advantages then most of his presidential peers. His great communicative skills were not hurt by his Hollywood good looks, and he had terrific political instincts fostered by his close connection to world events and the political theater of his upbringing. FDR raised himself to be President in the model of his cousin TR, but JFK, after the death of his brother, was fast-tracked to the job by the incredible heavy-hitting Kennedy political machine. Despite his incredible advantages he still had to produce, and he was quite capable of reflecting those skills on all of his campaign venues. As President he was inexperienced, a bit too young, and therefore pushed around by his own Congress. In a potential second term he would have had a short window of opportunity to succeed before morphing into the traditional lame-duck status that befits presidential 2nd terms. Certainly Michael Dukakis, who was and is quite bright, suffered from some of the same fear that the public has of intellectual superiority. In the modern era, only Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, two true intellects, were elected to the Presidency. Few people saw TR as an intellect and he was elevated initially by violence, and not the direct will of the electorate. Ironically Wilson, former President of Princeton, an intellectual reformer, historian, and a writer, besides being the popular reform Governor of New Jersey, was elected as a true minority President, when his eventual political enemy, the former president, Teddy Roosevelt, split the vote in a three- way election.


So we do not have a long wonderful history of electing truly bright people. Maybe, in his own way, Nixon would be considered bright, a law school graduate from Duke, along with the highly educated and successful businessmen and engineers Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. Certainly anyone smart enough to captain a nuclear submarine and to pass Admiral Hyman Rickover's rigorous tests was no dope. But few give or gave him good marks as a President, and he was never perceived as an intellect. Most people saw him as a country-boy peanut farmer! William Howard Taft, our largest president was an educated man, a lawyer, territorial governor, a cabinet official and also a Supreme Court Justice. But no one accused him of being overly gifted as an intellect. Warren Harding was a handsome fellow, with an eye for the ladies, and a political hack, as was Gerald Ford. Harry S Truman, like Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford was elevated to the job and unlike those I just mentioned, did not attend college. But Truman, who was never thought of as an intellect, was certainly no a fool, and now is widely recognized as near-great President, but still an unpopular one. LBJ was a political animal with a minor college education, who was quite bright, and incredibly energetic and ambitious, but not an intellect either. Coolidge was a dour fellow who slept through most of his five years in the job and had little vision or transferable ideals. Reagan certainly would never be accused of being well educated or bright, and was at best a line-reciting puppet with a primitive understanding of almost anything. His familiarity with the scientific world was appalling and his total inability to react with a spontaneous thought was embarrassing. Again he never had high marks regarding his reputation of being well read or an intellect, but he was and remains popular. He certainly could deliver a quippish line and was well-liked as a genial non-malevolent soul. History may just flay him to shreds as he will probably fall significantly in the minds of future generations of historians. This recent meltdown of our financial system may relegate him as being a modern day Coolidge to Hoover. Of course no two circumstances in history are exactly the same.


Of course we are left with one President who has always confounded everyone. FDR, the most successful politician and statesman in the history of the western world, was not an intellect. Everyone remembers Oliver Wendell Holmes “supposed” remark that he (FDR) was “a second rate intellect, but (had) a first-class temperament.” (Denied by Oliver Wendell Holmes to his death!) According to Thomas Corcoran, his former and favorite clerk when he was on the Court, Holmes, when he met FDR at his home, confused him for a moment with his old rival Theodore Roosevelt. Holmes was thinking of TR has a “first rate-rate intellect with a second rate temperament.” Then in contemplation he reversed it with FDR. He never thought FDR was a “second-rate” intellect, but second to his 5th cousin!


FDR was reasonably better educated then most, and had very high communication skills. His great strength really resided in his exceptional “people” skills. He knew how to get good people to do good and loyal work. He engendered great loyalty and love from his staff, and even received grudgingly given respect from his political enemies. Even the Japanese, in the midst of the war and on the edge of defeat, offered moments of silence, over the radio, at the news of his death and recognized him as a “great” man. No man in history had the combination of domestic, worldwide and posthumous acclaim. He owned the office and almost no one, even his great and most vicious opponents, could discount his power and skills. In a sense, an eternally healthy FDR would have gone on and on. His supporters were never tired of him, and his opponents were plum worn out by his skills, charm and worldwide support. Today he remains an almost unchallenged icon, far above his contemporaries and all who have followed. Most collective memories of FDR are unique and reverential. Though he was secretive, at times vindictive, and often politically too bold, his legacy remains unprecedented and will continue to grow.

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