How smart is smart enough?

You don't have to be anti-Ronald Reagan to be concerned whether he has the intellectual depth to cope with the awesome decisionmaking of the presidency. Columnists and commentators are raising the question, and not all of them are hostile.

It is a fair question. One of the resident scholars of the American Enterprise Institute devoted an article to the subject in the Washington Post. He saw it as a matter of degree, and he centered on this point: "How intelligent does a president have to be?" That begins to get at the heart of the matter.

I do not propose to defend Mr. Reagan's intellectual qualifications to be president. That will be his task. Obviously some raise the question in the expectation that the very asking will spread the impression that the answer is no. Others undoubtedly hope to be reassured. It will undoubtedly be an issue in the campaign, and I am sure it will not be limited to one's side. TBut in searching for the basis of a practical answer, it seems to me it is helpful to ask: What has been the intelligence quotient of successful presidents? Where on the scale of fitness for the presidency should intelligence rate?

The qualities of our presidents have been uneven. There has been no Albert Einstein or H. G. Wells in the White House in the 20th century. But we can look at some of our recent presidents to see if it helps us get a fix on the place which intellectual capacity plays in ability to perform their duties.

There is no doubt that Woodrow Wilson ws one of the more scholarly and intelelctually brilliant men to serve. But this did not make him one of our great presidents. He mishandled the peace negotiations after World War I, and many historians agree that he failed to win ratification of the League of Nations because he had no talent for prudent compromise. TFew americans deny that Franklin Roosevelt was one of our geat presidents; at least the people thought so because they elected him four times.Soon after he came to Washington in 1933, he spent an evening at the home of the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes. A friend asked the Supreme Court justice how FDR impressed him. He replied: "Good mind, no; good instincts, yes."

Take Herbert Hoover. He was undoubtedly one of our most intelligent public servants. He was the adminstrator of the massive, worldwide food relief programs after World War I; he was an extraordinarily able secretary of commerce under Coolidge; but he was unable to manage the presidency during the onset of the great depressions. He was simply not effective in the White House.

I have never heard Harry Truman hailed as an intellectual. When the presidency was suddenly thrust upon him with the passing of Mr. Roosevelt in 1945, he confessed that he felt that the sun, the moon, and the stars had suddenly fallen on his shoulders. He wasn't fooling. Most agree that, while Truman did not have a great mind to call on, he had judgment, great common sense , and a wide knowledge of American history. I rate him as one of the better 20 th-century presidents.

Dwight Eisenhower was no intellectual powerhouse, but the nation deemed him as president the right man in the right place doing the right things. He was downgraded by some during his two terms in office, but historians are now beginning to revise upward their estimates of his service.

Most observers saw John F. Kennedy as a superior intellectual, but his record was uneven and he was not in the White House long enough to know whether he would have made an outstanding president. Lyndon Johnson was bright without being brilliant. He was unusually effective.

I cound Jimmy Carter to be a very intelligent person, and come November the American voters will decide whether they think he has been a good president.

I do not mean to suggest that the absence of a high IQ is an asset to any president. I am simply looking at the record to try to determine whether a superior intellectual makes a superior president and, if not, where intellect rates as one ingredient in the fitness to serve as president.

I tend to believe that a good mind is one of numerous needed ingredients, but not necessarily the foremost. Among other, perhaps even more important requirements would be: (1) a coherent sense of purpose; (2) political courage when it is crucially needed; (3) ability to deal with other politicians; (4) coolness under pressure; (5) a capacity for leadership, which to me means to galvanize public and congressional support.

Wouldn't it be well to try to measure Reagan, Carter and Anderson -- all three -- by these standards?

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.