David Corn doesn't shy away from the the thorny task of comparing presidents for their intelligence. The liberal Politics Daily blogger sets out to answer the question, "are Democratic presidents smarter than Republican presidents?" He uses the past three presidents from each party as test cases. Recognizing the complexity of the question and anticipating accusations of political bias, Corn states that he know that "there are different sorts of intelligence, and conventional (or book) smarts does not guarantee a president a good ride." But in the context of a policy battle like the recent health care summit, the former Democratic presidents come out on top for Corn:
Weeks before he moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., [Bill] Clinton, well known for his lust for policy wonkery, demonstrated his talents. In December 1992, as president-elect, he skillfully played host a two-day economic summit in Little Rock with 300 business and labor leaders... Jimmy Carter, who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at the U.S. Naval Academy and who subsequently studied nuclear engineering, was also a smarty-pants. ...
Now think of George W. Bush, his father or Ronald Reagan at the helm of such an event. W might have been able to get by if the subject were education policy. ...As for the first President Bush, OK, he did come across as a smart fellow. But he didn't show a great deal of intellectual interest in domestic policy matters...And Ronald Reagan -- could he have gotten through a complicated policy matter without index cards in front of him?
Despite his examples, Corn notes again that brainpower is not a sure indicator of political leadership:
Is there any doubt that the collective brainpower of Reagan, Bush I and Bush II wouldn't come close to that of Carter, Clinton and Obama? But before conservatives and Republicans yelp, I will acknowledge that there's not necessarily a direct connection between intelligence and leadership. ... After all, Reagan and Bush II enacted key aspects of their agendas -- for good or bad -- and won re-election.
Is there any effective way to measure presidential intelligence? Or is the question, in Corn's words, "not which presidents are smarter, but whether it matters?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.