“I can’t believe I’m losing to this idiot,” said a frustrated Sen. John Kerry after a 2004 presidential debate with George W. Bush. Kerry was embarrassed shortly afterward when someone leaked his college transcript, which revealed that his fellow Harvard grad Bush had a higher GPA. Kerry’s embarrassment turned to mortification when the election returns came in from Ohio. There, riding the coattails of a marriage amendment on the ballot, George W. Bush carried the Buckeye State and won the election.
It’s a commonplace among the chattering classes to view conservatives as dummies and liberals as really, really smart. Brilliant isn’t good enough. When one of President Kennedy’s top aides was described in glowing press commentary as scintillatingly brilliant, JFK laughed and said, “10,000 votes the other way in Illinois and he’d be scintillatingly stupid.”
Ronald Reagan also had the humor and the grace to make light of his intellectual prowess. In Illinois for an honorary degree from his alma mater, Eureka College, the president winked and said he always thought his first Eureka degree was honorary.
Reagan was easily dismissed by the Georgetown cocktail party circuit. When presidential aide Mike Deaver sought to correct that misimpression, Reagan told him to have one of the “cliff dwellers” of Washington’s power elite over for coffee in the White House. Clark Clifford was the tall, elegant, silver-haired liberal lion invited to a social hour with Reagan. He no sooner returned to his lair, however, than his description of the president as “an amiable dunce” made the rounds.
Instead of a volcanic eruption – which would surely have followed any such description of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon – Reagan simply grinned at Deaver and dismissed the episode from his mind.
We are led to believe that Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton was also scintillatingly brilliant. As evidence, folks point to the time he was able to “wing it” with a State of the Union Address when the staff had loaded the previous year’s text into the teleprompter. For several minutes, the great orator ad libbed his speech while aides frantically worked to slot in the new message. Of course, there are doubters who said one Bill Clinton speech was pretty much like all the others.
President Obama, we are endlessly told, is the “smartest man ever to enter the White House.” That’s from respected presidential historian, Michael Beschloss. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas meanwhile referred to an Obama speech at Normandy in glowing terms. Commemorating the sixty-fifth anniversary of D-Day, Thomas wrote of Obama, “he hovers over the nations like a sort of god.”
For all the president’s acknowledged intellectual firepower, how come we’re still slogging along in an unrecovered recovery? And why is it that the planet is not only not healed, but there are new bloody sores breaking out everywhere every day?
Today is Ronald Reagan’s birthday. He never sought the accolade “brilliant.” But I would give him something better: Reagan was wise.
Lots of the characters in our history and in the Bible are smart. But not so many are wise. Reagan had a deep bond of affection with the American people. He didn’t appeal to red states or blue states, but to red-white-and-blue states. He didn’t exclude anyone. He welcomed people recently arrived on boats with the same enthusiasm that he embraced Mayflower descendants. If he was a conservative and a Republican, he was also a democrat and very liberal with his sympathy. And when he died, George Will could famously say of him: “He calmed the passengers – and the sea.” Yes, Reagan the wise.
Robert Morrison is a senior fellow at the Family Research Council.