William Katz: The brightness of the president

Occasional contributor Bill Katz is the proprietor of Urgent Agenda. It’s been a while since we heard from him. This morning he reflects on Obama’s vaunted intelligence:

One of the most frequent comments we hear goes something like this: “I know this guy who voted for Obama, and he really regrets it.” It’s a refrain that seems to be growing and spreading. It is buyer’s remorse.
It seems to me that we ought to examine that phenomenon. People generally have buyer’s remorse because they don’t feel they received what they were sold. And what were the American people sold in November of 2008? They were sold a cool dude who cut a fine image, spoke rather well, and seemed to make a number of people feel warm and good all over. Weren’t we wonderful? We elected a minority to the White House.
But that’s not all we were sold. We were sold, if you recall, an intellect. Barack Obama, we were assured, is “bright.”
Now, let me ask you a question: You’ve all read about the great men and women of history. Do you recall ever reading that a major historical figure was “bright”? Of course not. No one would even think of describing anyone of significance that way. The issue is not whether someone is “bright.” The issue is whether that person is competent and wise.
And yet, brightness has become its own virtue. We’re impressed by candidates who appear “bright.” I think this reflects the fact that this is the age of the college graduate, the age where “brightness,” or the suggestion of intellect, is considered a fundamental requirement for even getting up in the morning. In order to be taken seriously, one must show the kind of mental agility popular with college admissions officers.
No one debated whether Lincoln was “bright,” or Washington, or Franklin Roosevelt. And yet, in modern times, some pundits anguished over whether Ronald Reagan was “bright enough” to be president. They’d learned nothing from Harry Truman, who’d never graced a college campus.
In some measure, Barack Obama was oversold because he was considered “bright,” brighter than George W. Bush, and bright enough to hold his own with other “bright” men and women in government and the academy. Instead of concentrating on the wisdom of his ideas, and the capacity of his leadership, we seemed mesmerized by this bright African-American seeking the presidency.
In the 1950s, the intellectual classes rallied around Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, declaring him “bright,” and much brighter than Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Army guy. And yet, Eisenhower had made history, read history, and understood people and how to deal with them. Stevenson rarely read a book, had no particular wisdom, and had little understanding of the human race. But Stevenson was “bright.” He was declared thus because he sounded good.
We’ve got to get over it. If the horrid administration of Barack Obama teaches us anything, it’s that “brightness” is only a small measure of a man. Although Eisenhower wasn’t considered the brightness equal of Stevenson, Eisenhower achieved greatness while Stevenson became a footnote. Reagan achieved greatness, while the man he defeated, Jimmy Carter, has become a bit of a laughingstock, although regarded by the gatekeepers as very bright.
It’s often said that Lincoln couldn’t be elected today because he didn’t cut that great an image, and often sounded common. That may be true. But let us contemplate the reasons why Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan were great…before we elect another “bright” man to the White House.

I think of the comment of Saul Bellow’s aunt on the political arguments of Bellow and his fellow undergraduate radicals at the aunt’s apartment near the University of Chicago, recalled by Norman Podhoretz in My Love Affair With America: “Smart, smart, smart…stupid!”