Does IQ Matter In A President?

Steve Sailer's VDARE.com scoop from last week, "This Just In: Kerry's IQ Likely Lower than Bush's!," continues to make news. On the "NBC Nightly News" on Thursday night, 10/28/2004, Tom Brokaw asked John Kerry for his reaction to Sailer's discovery. You can read the exchange on VDARE.com's blog.

Perceptions of candidates' intelligence have long played a major role in American politics, as have attempts to manipulate those perceptions. Misspelling the word "potato," for example, appears to have permanently doomed former Vice President Dan Quayle's Presidential ambitions.

Thus, it's hardly surprising that some candidates have toiled to cultivate an image of brilliance. For example, Joseph Kennedy Sr. spent heavily on the ghostwriters who largely concocted the two nonfiction bestsellers published under his son John's name. JFK even won the Pulitzer Prize for "Profiles in Courage," which is now known to be mostly the work of speechwriter Theodore Sorenson.

In reality, President Kennedy possessed a fine but hardly spectacular brain. According to historian Thomas C. Reeves, author of "A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy," in prep school JFK scored a 119 on an IQ test. Although a tenth of the population scores higher than 119, a C-SPAN poll of 58 historians rated Kennedy as possessing the eighth strongest leadership qualities of all 41 Presidents.

Similarly, the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956, Adlai Stevenson, also portrayed himself as an intellectual. The press created the term "egghead" to describe the bald and supposedly scholarly Stevenson. In truth, Stevenson's resume was comparable to that of George W. Bush. Stevenson was the grandson of Grover Cleveland's second Vice President. As a rich socialite, Stevenson barely scraped through Princeton and Northwestern. After a nondescript early career, Stevenson unexpectedly became the popular and competent governor of Illinois. He then ran for President only four years later. At his death, the only book found resting upon his bedside table was "The Social Register."

In sharp contrast, the man who twice beat Stevenson, Dwight Eisenhower, took pains to hide his considerable brainpower. He found it expedient to present himself as a kindly old duffer interested mostly in golf and cowboy stories. This masquerade fooled even the historians of the time, who somehow assumed that the organizer of the staggeringly complex D-Day invasion had the IQ of a tree stump. Shortly after Eisenhower left office, a poll of historians rated him one of the ten worst Presidents ever.

After Ike's death, however, a new generation of historians discovered much evidence supporting the expert opinion of his Vice President, Richard Nixon, that

Eisenhower was "The most devious man I ever came across in politics." Therefore, this year's C-SPAN poll of historians rated him one of the ten strongest Presidential leaders.

One rule of thumb useful in evaluating candidates' reputations is to remember that more writers will write nice things about politicians who give more jobs to writers. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and John F. Kennedy resembled George W. Bush in important ways. They were wealthy heirs to famous political names who possessed strong electoral skills but no intellectual interests discernible to the disinterested historians of the current era. All three, though, were smart enough to hire Arthur Schlesinger Jr. This prominent Harvard historian returned their favors by extolling their mental glamour for years afterwards.

In contrast, Presidents such as Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon who employed as advisers more businessmen and soldiers than intellectuals naturally elicited less adoration from professional prose stylists. In reality, these four were formidably brainy.

Coolidge translated Dante for fun and was the last President to write his own speeches. His prose style was the most lapidary of 20th Century Presidents. (The reason Coolidge slept so much while in the White House appears to be that he may been clinically depressed after the sudden death of his 16 year old son in 1924.)

Hoover was an extremely successful mining engineer and mine promoter, who with his wife translated the classic mining text De re Metallica.  

Eisenhower adeptly managed a massive military campaign involving the largest sea-borne invasion ever and a fractious, difficult coalition.  

Nixon played a central role in American public life for many decades despite humble origins. There's a story I have not confirmed that Nixon scored 143 on an IQ test, which seems not implausible—what other political assets did Nixon have besides an exceptionally powerful intelligence, energy, and determination? In contrast, his opponent in 1960, John F. Kennedy, tested at 119 in prep school, but he was gifted with good looks, a charismatic personality, self-confidence, a glamorous wife, a prominent father, and wealth, everything the awkward, maladroit Nixon lacked.

Bill Bradley, a celebrated jock turned politician, provides a recent example of the dubiousness of reputations for intelligence. The former New York Knick managed to project for two decades a public image as the thinking man's Senator. Yet, when finally tested in his run against Al Gore for the Democratic nomination in 2000 Bradley's lackluster campaign lived down to his 485 SAT Verbal score (570 under the new scoring system). The late historian Jim Chapin, one of the very few leftists to publicly admit the utility of IQ, told me that Bradley's SAT Verbal score  "May explain his relative ponderousness in reacting to changing verbal circumstances—he clearly preps and over-preps, but he may have more trouble dealing with unexpected lines."

That we should expect smarter Presidents to serve us better may seem unlikely, though, judging from the historical record. While some intensely bright men such as Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln enjoyed much success in office, others experienced major difficulties, such as Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, James Madison, and John Adams

Still, this doesn't mean that IQ is not desirable in a President, all else being equal. The problem is that all else is not equal. There are so few people at the far right end of the IQ bell curve that you can't always find amongst them all the other Presidential talents you need.

In contrast, the rare individuals who make it to the White House from the fat part of the bell curve are far more gifted overall than is typical for their IQ. It's the same as with height in basketball. If you are 7'6" tall, NBA teams will throw money at you no matter how dorky you might be. But if you are only 6'0", the competition is so fierce that you need to be as quick as Allen Iverson.

So, if IQ can indeed explain something like one sixth of job performance, how important is IQ in hiring Presidents? Chapin and Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve came to an agreement during a discussion in 2000 that IQ probably explains about as much of the variance in success of Presidents as it has been measured to do for salesmen: 16%. That sounds trivial. Yet, since there are so many different factors that contribute to success, IQ can be one of the most important in relative terms. For most jobs, it typically ranks with conscientiousness and honesty as one of the three most significant factors. 

Can a man be too smart to be President? "Possibly," says Jerry Pournelle, the science fiction novelist who learned recently that at age six he had scored 184 on an IQ test. "We have known since Shakespeare that there is and perhaps ought to be a certain distrust of those sicklied over with the pale cast of thought." Although Pournelle fought in Korea as an artillery officer, he states, "We have always known that the brightest do not make the best military officers. There is a minimum, but go too high and you get problems. This is standard thinking."  According to British psychometrician Chris Brand, the military adage that if a leader is more than 30 IQ points smarter than his average follower, he will have trouble communicating effectively stems from British Army research during World War II.

Inspired by this rule of thumb, historian Chapin offered a novel theory for why the first six Presidents were so smart on average, while the braininess of Presidents from Andrew Jackson through William McKinley tended to be unimpressive, and then 20th Century presidents rebounded to be generally fairly bright.

He suggests that the IQ gap between the average President and the average voter has stayed roughly the same, but the voters have changed in average intelligence level. Up through 1824, the electorate was quite smart because only elite property owners could vote. Then, politics became a kind of national spectator sport with huge turnouts, so the IQ of voters fell to the mean. Therefore, we stopped electing geniuses like Jefferson and Madison and started electing nondescript politicos like Franklin Pierce and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Then, a century ago, other forms of mass entertainment came along. Turnout dropped, especially among the dimmer elements. This allowed clever men like Nixon, Carter, Bush the Elder (Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, graduating in 2.5 years), and Clinton to win elections.

Gregory Cochran, a rocket scientist turned evolutionary biologist, summed up the challenge facing voters. "What really matters in a leader is not being smart, but being right. Who was smarter? Warren G. Harding or V.I. Lenin? I'm sure Lenin could have beaten Harding in chess, but I definitely would rather have lived under Harding than Lenin. Harding was kind of a dumb bunny, but his prejudices and instincts were much more reasonable than Lenin's, who was wrong about everything."

I think it's useful for both the public and the candidates to have honest information about their intellectual capacities. Test scores aren't hugely important, but at least they are objective and honest compared to the enormous amounts of spin we voters are subjected to.

It's not good for Kerry to listen to all the flattery about how brilliant he is compared to Bush. For example, it hurts him on the campaign trail because he refuses to just read what his speechwriters give him. He did well in the debates where the time limits kept him from rambling.

But when giving a speech, he insists on embroidering the crisply-written text with his own off the top of the head dependent clauses and digressions. He'd be doing better if somebody told him – "Senator, you aren't that smart.  Just the read the speech."

Bush, in contrast, is a more disciplined campaigner because he doesn't improvise much. But, as President, he'd do a better job if he sweated the details more. He should be told, "You were smart enough to get two Ivy League degrees and learn how to fly a supersonic jet fighter, so stop winging it based on your gut instinct. Buckle down and study the issues."

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]