Does academic achievement bring Oval Office success?

Jamie Weinstein Senior Writer
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How smart do we want our presidents to be, and what does their academic performance tell us about their chances for success?

This month Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s college transcript was leaked, and the Republican presidential contender’s academic performance at Texas A&M turned out to be less than stellar. Perry’s critics seized on the document to suggest that he didn’t have the aptitude to serve as leader of the free world.

Is there a correlation between success in the White House and a president’s perceived intelligence, or at least between academic performance and Oval Office success?

American University historian Allan Lichtman told The Daily Caller that he believes so.

“If you look at some of the least successful presidents,” he said, “they’re not exactly known for their [intellectual] prowess … Whereas the most brilliant of the presidents are all either very successful or at least reasonably successful.”

How, then, does one explain Jimmy Carter, thought to be smart but generally considered a not-so-great president? What of Ronald Reagan, media-cast as an “amiable dunce” but considered by many to be a historically great chief executive?

“Reagan was smarter than people give him credit for,” Licthman said. “It is a very rough correlation, and there will be exceptions, but overall it is a reasonable correlation.”

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, who is a scholar-in-residence in history and public policy at George Mason University, disagrees.

“I don’t think there is a direct correlation between success in the classroom as tested by a grade book and success in the Oval Office,” he told TheDC.

Smith explained that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who is regularly ranked among America’s greatest presidents by historians, had an “undistinguished” academic career but had a type of intelligence that was more important than book smarts.

“FDR had an incredible emotional intelligence. FDR read people, not books,” Smith said. “His career in college was undistinguished, but then, frankly, you know, there were lots of ‘Gentleman’s C’s’ at Harvard in those days.”

Smith continued: “What Roosevelt demonstrated from an early age was a capacity for leadership, and that is something that dramatically accelerated with age. It wasn’t something he learned in a classroom. It is something he learned from life.”

Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley told TheDC that he, too, rejects the idea of a correlation between academic success or brilliance with success in the presidency.

“Harry Truman never went to college and I think he’s usually ranked number five of all-time presidents,” Brinkley noted. “People like Lyndon Johnson, you know, who brought all these social programs, Medicaid, Medicare, the Civil Rights Act and all, had just gone to San Marcos College.”

Conservative icon and National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr. once quipped that he’d “rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Buckley’s quip raises the question: should Americans want academic geniuses leading them?

“You want practical intelligence, obviously,” Lichtman added. “You don’t want someone who simply has their heads in the clouds. But you do want very smart people who understand history, who understand issues, who can think creatively and boldly.”

“What you want to succeed in the presidency is political smarts, and those are not always the same things as academic accomplishments,” Smith argued. “The best evidence is the fact that Reagan went through life exploiting the fact that he was underestimated. He was sufficiently comfortable in his own skin and he was shrewd enough to make it work for him.”

“There are more Reaganites than there are Stevensonians,” Smith concluded, referring to perennial losing Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, who was noted for his academic demeanor.

As for Perry, Brinkley said he doesn’t see the Texan running away from his Ivy-less pedigree.

“Up East, the fact that the Roosevelts and Kennedys were Harvard and [it was seen] as important to go to the Ivy League — that used to be out there,” Brinkley said. “I don’t think it is anymore. I heard Perry the other day say the difference between [George W. Bush] and I is he went to Yale and I’m an Aggie.”

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