Smart enough to be president?

As I leave for a little Florida vacation, I take with me Edmund Morris's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt." I've read enough to see the fine writing and superb research that brought Mr. Morris to the attention of those who were searching for a biographer for President Reagan. How he muffed his opportunity with Reagan I'll never understand.

But as I look over the field of presidential candidates, I wonder whether any would have the stuff of a Teddy Roosevelt, as depicted by Morris. For example, on the subject of intelligence Morris writes: "The vast majority of Roosevelt's interlocutors [intellectuals who have met with him] would agree with H.G. Wells that Theodore Roosevelt has 'the most vigorous brain in a conspicuously responsible position in all the world.' ... When the new British Ambassador, Sir Esm Howard, presented his credentials and mentioned that he had been transferred from Crete, Roosevelt immediately began to discuss the archeological digs at Knossos, 'which he had evidently followed closely,' then asked if Howard was by any chance descended from 'Belted Will' of Border fame - quoting [Sir Walter] Scott on the subject, to the diplomat's mystification."

Allow me to continue briefly with Morris's depiction of the amazing Teddy: "The President," he writes, "is also capable of declaiming German poetry to Lutheran preachers and comparing recently resuscitated Gaelic letters with Hopi Indian lyrics. He is recognized as the world authority on big American game mammals and is an ornithologist of some note.

"Stooping to pick up a speck of brown fluff off the White House lawn, he will murmur, 'Very early for a fox sparrow!' Roosevelt is equally at home with experts in naval strategy, forestry, Greek drama, cowpunching, metaphysics, protective coloration, and football techniques."

Well, we have some Yale and Harvard and Princeton products, and a Rhodes Scholar among our current White House aspirants - none with the brilliance of Roosevelt. But come to think of it, how many presidents have we had who could rival Teddy as an intellectual dazzler? We have had a lot of very intelligent presidents. And when you ask any voter what he or she look for in a chief executive, he or she will put braininess as a top prerequisite - just below the desire for a person of character.

The knock on George W. Bush is that his Yale degree and MBA from Harvard aren't indicative of a man who is smart enough to be president. True, he was a C student while his dad was Phi Beta Kappa. And he isn't at all bookish. But he has been smart enough to get the job done as Texas governor and, as I see it, he has enough on the ball to be president. John McCain was no student either, finishing nearly last in his class at Annapolis. But Mr. McCain has shown so much courage as a prisoner of war that no one is going to question his credentials. He's been a top-flight, gutsy senator too.

No, you don't have to have an intellectual ball of fire to have a good president. Indeed, some average students have done quite well as presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, among others. But that dazzler, Teddy Roosevelt, was regarded by historians as among our very best presidents. Look up at Mt. Rushmore! And he certainly is dazzling me as I read this biography. Take this little niblet from the book:

"Roosevelt's good friend Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge cherishes the following Presidential document, dated March 11, 1906:

'Dear Nannie: Can you have me to dinner either Wednesday or Friday? Would you be willing to have Bay and Bessie also? Then we could discuss the Hittite empire, the Pithecanthropus, and Magyar love song, and the exact relations of the Atli of the Volsunga Saga to the Etzel of the Nibelungenlied, and of both to Attila - with interludes by Cabot about the rate bill, Beverage, and other matters of more vivid contemporary interest. Ever yours, Theodore Roosevelt.' "


(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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