The governor of Texas strides into the atrium of his mansion, extends a hand, takes a seat, slouches into the fabric, crosses his legs. His eyes sparkle, and his thin smile never leaves him. His entire mien says: I am comfortable with who I am. Bring it on, son.

But it becomes apparent rather quickly that this is not a comfortable interview, and not a comfortable subject, for George W. Bush.

"You've got to be a little amazed at yourself coming to do a story asking some guy who's been an accomplished governor of the second-biggest state in the union about trying to figure out whether I think I'm smart enough to be the governor or the president. It's slightly satirical."

Bush's words don't tumble out with fury. He is somewhere between puzzled and perturbed, not sure whether to bat down this notion with annoyance or treat it like a whistle only dogs can hear. He is not prone to reflection and analysis, so it is hard for him to deconstruct the central question about him. Call it a recurring plume of doubt that hangs in the air like cigar smoke. Sometimes framed as depth, sometimes intellect, sometimes gravitas. Does George W. Bush have the candlepower to be a great president? Is George W. Bush bright enough to steer the country in times of crisis? Is George W. Bush a lightweight?

Grading the mind is a perilous task, for what does it really mean to be smart? After two decades of observation, Ronald Reagan biographer Lou Cannon concluded that the Gipper "was wonderful about Jack Benny and worthless on the subject of Lenin. He was intelligent about some matters some of the time."

That is one way to view Bush--to take his mind and compartmentalize it. Expansive about the growing influence of Hispanics in our society and sketchy about the political turmoil in Russia.

He is more instinctive than erudite, more people-oriented than policy-oriented, more linear than visionary.

"If there's a 10-page paper," says chief of staff Clay Johnson, Bush wants to know "what are the two pages that contain all the content?"

He is a quick study with an intuitive ability to size up strangers and situations.

"A good card player," says Republican state Sen. David Sibley, meaning he knows when to hold and when to fold in the legislative process.

He is not Plato, not Shakespeare.

"He is not the kind of guy you would go back to the dorms and talk about the Reformation with," says Yale suite mate Rob Dieter. "It would have been a total surprise if he had turned out to be an English professor."

Bush confuses "presumptive" and "presumptuous," mixes up Slovakia and Slovenia and calls Greeks "Grecians." Yet he had the most interesting answer of all at a recent GOP debate. The question was: Which two things would you put in a time capsule to best represent America as it begins the 21st century? Most of his rivals felt compelled to include the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Bush's answer: Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and the microchip--something to "show the heart of America" and something "to show the entrepreneurial spirit of the country."

Harvard professor Howard Gardner, a specialist in cognition and education, pioneered the theory of "multiple intelligences," which aided Cannon in sorting through Reagan's mind and may be useful in decoding Bush. The theory challenges the popular notion that intellect is a singular trait for which there are standardized measurements. Gardner's nine categories of intelligence help explain why Jimmy Carter is considered to have a first-rate mind but was an underachiever as president. It helps explain why Franklin Roosevelt, not a renowned reader, was able to lift up a nation in despair during the Great Depression and after Pearl Harbor.

Bush's great strength is "interpersonal intelligence," which Gardner describes as an understanding of your fellow Americans. It is an ability to get along with people and to get them to like you. Bush developed such a close relationship with the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock (D), for example, that Bullock endorsed Bush for reelection in 1998 over Democratic nominee Garry Mauro. And Bullock was the godfather of Mauro's son.

Bush's great weakness, on the other hand, is what Gardner calls "existential intelligence," meaning the capacity to ask and consider big questions. Who are we? What are good and evil? Will we survive or falter? What should we want from our lives?

"So far," Gardner says, "W. seems to be clueless" in this mode of thinking.

He is not like President Clinton, a voracious reader who is versed in many subjects and is capable of giving a contemplative response to most questions tossed his way. Instead, Bush is more like his father, who was hounded by the "vision thing," as he called it in frustration. He wants practical answers and is not prone to link concepts together.

"He is reflective of the corporate management style of modern Texas," observes Dallas Morning News editorial writer William McKenzie, who has conducted some 35 interviews with the governor on subjects ranging from Mexico to school finance. "Bush is not going to give you this whole broad range of academic and intellectual context to an issue. But I've never, ever had that feeling with Bush that the light's not on."

Much has been made of Bush's reading habits as a gauge of his light bulb wattage. According to both friends and foes, who cite books he has recommended, Bush reads more than he is given credit for. Though his tastes tilt toward history and biographies, his wife, Laura, a librarian, says she has turned him into a fan of Robert Parker mysteries.

Still, Bush often seems unable to articulate what, if anything, he has absorbed from his reading. Like his siblings, Bush has said, he has always read more for entertainment than knowledge. "I was never a great intellectual," Bush once said, according to Bill Minutaglio's biography, "First Son." "I like books and pick them up and read them for the fun of it. I think all of us are basically in the same vein. We're not real serious, studious readers. We are readers for fun."

In an early debate, he volunteered that he was reading a biography of Dean Acheson, Harry Truman's secretary of state, implementer of the Marshall Plan, negotiator of the treaty that led to NATO. But when Bush was asked at a subsequent debate to cite lessons he had taken from the successes and failures of Acheson and George Marshall and to apply those to a Bush international policy, his reply was essentially this: The United States must not "retreat within our borders," must "promote the peace," must have "strong alliances" and must be "a free-trading nation in a free-trading world."

By comparison, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) later volunteered an anecdote about Acheson walking into Truman's office in 1950 and telling him that North Korea had attacked South Korea. He used Acheson to make a point about presidential leadership, about how Truman didn't need to take a poll to do what's right. After the debate, the buzz grew that Bush had not only flubbed the answer but had not read the book at all. The buzz reached Bush, and Bush began to seethe.

"I mean, what kind of world is this?" he says. "I guess people are so used to being lied to in Washington that they'd think I'd get up on national TV and make up some book. Where have we gotten to?

"Maybe I should have picked out one little bitty detail of the book," he continues. "I don't think so. I thought my answer was the right answer, otherwise I wouldn't have given it. I don't get it. I don't understand this cynicism."

To this day, the history major believes he "absolutely hammered" the question. Which explains something about Bush's mind. To him, he had given a quick summation of the principles of his foreign policy, the same kind of summation he had given in speeches and other forums. It's what political operatives call staying on message, which is becoming a hallmark of the Bush campaign, even to his detriment. He is so "on message" that he has come under fire lately for taking a walk on tough issues--such as whether the Confederate flag should be flown over the South Carolina state capitol.

But the Acheson question practically begged Bush to venture out of the box of predictable statements and paint a picture with metaphor and parallel, and that is not suited to his strengths.

"Where the fruits of your reading come through is whether you can think well about issues in which you haven't been primed," Gardner says. "There is no evidence in any of these debates that he's digested these ideas, made them his own and is able to draw on them thoughtfully on his own. Even if he could take me to a library and show me he had checked out a thousand books, they didn't stick."

With Bush, adds Gardner, the question is less about "intelligence per se" and more about "intellectual laziness. I think throughout his life he has not done any more homework than he has to."

Bush's mode of decision-making is to get as much input from staff and advisers as possible, preferably in short, focused sessions. He is more interested in principles than details. Details he delegates. He often tells state agency directors who come to brief him to put down their crammed notebooks and just tell him in their own words what's important.

Larry Lindsey, a former Federal Reserve Board governor and the Bush campaign's chief economics adviser, says Bush is surprisingly secure in what he doesn't know. "Sometimes he will blurt out in a meeting, 'Hey, Lindsey, run that by me again in English.' "

Princeton presidential scholar Fred Greenstein has a new book coming out in which he evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the last 11 presidents using six touchstones. Perhaps the most important of these qualities is the one that gets the least attention: "emotional intelligence." Does a president have his emotions under control or does he allow his inner complexities to undermine his presidency?

"I find it striking that four of the most intelligent of the modern presidents were severely handicapped by their emotional limitations," says Greenstein.

One of them, Richard Nixon, had a computer-like brain but a suspicious, angry nature that led to his downfall. Another, Clinton, was so unable to manage his impulses that his personal behavior led to impeachment.

"With George W.," says Greenstein, "I don't think we know enough about him. He seems fairly with it, not known to blow up or do counterproductive things. But I think we would want to know more about those first 40 years. Is there any time bomb out there?"

'Strong on People Issues'

It's no secret that Bush wasn't studying 60 hours a week during his years of formal education, from the Phillips Academy prep school at Andover to Yale to Harvard Business School. He was pretty much a middling student at each of these distinguished institutions. At Andover, the dean of students, upon learning Bush was considering Yale, suggested that perhaps he should have a backup option. Once at Yale, Bush eased comfortably into C-student status, honed his frat-boy image and developed a wide range of friendships--from nerds to jocks--that would serve him well in politics. Though the University of Texas law school wouldn't take him, George W. managed to get into Harvard Business School.

Some have asked: How did a C-student get accepted into what at that time was the best business school in the country? The admissions process was something of a mystery, Harvard alums say. The school was clearly looking for the best and brightest, but not just those who scored high on their board exams or whipped through their undergrad years with straight A's. One of Bush's Harvard classmates, for instance, was a circus barker. The ultimate goal was to admit students who would become leaders in their fields and therefore boost the reputation of Harvard Business School. And Bush certainly had lineage on his side. At the time, his father was Republican National Committee chairman and would soon be headed to China as U.S. ambassador. In addition, Bush's written application apparently contained a strong essay.

"Was he the smartest guy in the class? No. Was he the dumbest? No. I guess he was like most of us who fell along that bell-shaped curve that I'd guess you'd call Harvard mediocrity," says Peter Gebhard, a Harvard classmate.

Bush has called Harvard a "turning point" because he arrived there unsure of the direction his life should take. He had done a stint in the Texas Air National Guard and was working full time for an inner-city poverty program in Houston. Harvard, he has said, is where he became serious about his studies. "I was there to learn, and that's exactly what I did," Bush wrote in his autobiography, "A Charge to Keep."

But even at Harvard, Bush was fighting his own internal battle with motivation. He was at his best, according to some friends, in a class called "Human Behavior and Organization," which tackled questions about salary practices, hiring and firing, and presenting and communicating new ideas. "I would not say he was a big numbers man where you had to do a lot of calculations," recalls Tom Riley, one of the students in Bush's small section. "But he was very strong on people issues."

Harvard's environment was challenging. "You couldn't get away with B.S.-ing," says Riley. "If you're not prepared the whole class knows."

Al Hubbard, now a Bush campaign adviser, recalls observing Bush sitting in the back of one class and never saying a word. Harvard's program was structured around case studies, which meant you often had to present and defend your position in a big amphitheater in front of competitive students and demanding professors. "So, if you're not participating," explains Hubbard, "that says it all. He was not trying to get a good grade."

Hubbard has watched Bush become increasingly more conscientious as he pursues the presidency. He sometimes thinks back to how far his friend has come since Harvard. With Bush, he says, it was always a question of motivation, not intellect. "He wasn't driven."

Intelligence Is . . .

On this sunny day in Austin, Bush is friendly but wary. The entire subject of this interview is intelligence--what it means, who has it, how he defines it, what they are saying about him and whether it matters.

"Intelligence is can you think logically," Bush explains. "Intelligence is do you have a basis from which to make decisions. Intelligence in politics is do you have good instincts."

Bush doesn't spend much time analyzing himself, but to friends he seems burdened sometimes by the weight of his family biography. His late grandfather Prescott Bush was a senator from Connecticut and a Yale trustee who believed that his alma mater was a place where great minds were nurtured. His father, the former president, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale and is a legend at Andover. His younger brother, Jeb, the governor of Florida, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Texas and is often considered the "smart son." In fact, if Jeb had not lost his first bid for governor in 1994 he might have been the anointed Bush, the one the party establishment is embracing as the next president.

George W. does not seem particularly impressed by learned men, nor does he pay homage to the value of an Ivy League education. In his autobiography, he skims over his years at Harvard and Yale as though they were weeks at summer camp.

"I saw some people who went to Yale who felt like they were superior," he says during the interview. "I just got a different point of view. I think you've got to earn--you've got to show me that not only can you espouse but you've got a sense of street smarts as well.

"I've seen plenty of smart folks who never even went to college," he continues, "who've got a native intelligence that I respect as much as somebody who's got book intelligence." Like his mother. "My mother never graduated from college, by the way. She's pretty smart."

Bush's occasional shots at intellectuals are especially interesting when you consider that his father faced exactly the opposite political problem. The elder Bush was challenged not on brains but on brawn. Often depicted as an Eastern Establishment Republican--the caricature being "wimp"--he was always battling the charge that he wasn't a "real Texan." His official residence was a Houston hotel room. The first son, on the other hand, is culturally a Texan--brash, straight-shootin', macho--even though he was educated at the same elite schools as his father. No one ever challenges his Texas roots. He is, however, being asked to prove what his father never had to--that he is smart enough for the job.

Bush and his advisers feign ease about the whole thing, but there is always the ghost of Dan Quayle looming as evidence that parody ripens into reality if it's well nurtured. "I don't pay attention to it," Bush insists.

But if he were paying attention to it, he would have plenty to pick from.

The disparaging commentaries over his failure to pass a pop quiz on obscure foreign leaders. The New Yorker's publication of his Yale transcripts confirming his mediocre grades. The New Republic's drawing of him donning a dunce cap. The Manchester Union-Leader's description of him as an "empty suit" in its endorsement of Steve Forbes. Fortune Magazine's introduction of its "Suit-O-Meter," a periodic measurement of how successful Bush is in beating the rap that he's on E upstairs. And lastly, the continuing cartoon ridicule of Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury."

"I couldn't tell you one cartoon that Doonesbury's written in the last five years," Bush says. "I checked out of him when he questioned my father's manhood. There's no need to read a guy who questions my father's manhood."

Doesn't the cumulative effect of these images hurt in the long run? "The answer is it damages you when it seems to be reflected in reality," says Bush media adviser Stuart Stevens.

The Democratic National Committee's Web site catalogues Bush gaffes and knowledge limitations--with regular updates. But it's not just the Democrats. Bush's fellow Republicans, however much more subtly, have been raising the same point. In critiquing Bush's tax plan, McCain turned to him during one recent debate and said, "You don't understand the role of the president of the United States. The president of the United States will veto bills, veto bills, that spend too much."

Not to worry, Stevens says. "My instinct is this will drop at a certain point, because it won't be working."

So far, national polls suggest the parody hasn't taken hold with the public. A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey indicated 62 percent rate Bush "very intelligent," compared with 57 percent who hold the same view of Al Gore.

"One of the things in the public arena, a lot of people take themselves so seriously," Bush says. "And they've got the sullenness. And everything is so heavy. And humor, I think, is such a key ingredient to life."

Bush is discoursing on Winston Churchill, his nominee for Person of the 20th Century, but he could easily have been talking about himself as well. Even when analyzing his pick for the greatest figure of the last 100 years, it is telling what Bush chooses to emphasize. Though he mentions Churchill's role in rallying the Free World to defeat Hitler--"the foresight to see tyranny's ugly hand begin to reach across Europe"--he is more drawn to the British leader's personality.

"Winston Churchill was one of the master wits of all time. He was an extraordinarily funny man. And plus, he was a Renaissance type. Renaissance in the sense that he was a great painter. Well, he wasn't a great painter," Bush mumbles, "he was an accomplished painter. And he was a writer. Besides being a leader, he was a very interesting person."

Several Churchill scholars said they were impressed with Bush's critique, especially the fact that he had homed in on the character of a man who, as one scholar put it, had "balance in the soul."

"I'm pleasantly surprised," says William Manchester, author of two Churchill volumes called "The Last Lion." "I had the impression that he was an airhead."

Part of what Bush's critics are internalizing, observes state Rep. Steve Wolens (D), are Bush's mannerisms--his flippancy, his jocularity, even what is now called "the smirk."

"I have a different experience with him than the characterizations I read in the newspaper," Wolens says. "I have never been underwhelmed with his command of a subject." And Wolens has debated him on everything from utility deregulation to low-level radioactive waste.

Bush is asked to trace the origin of this rap on him and he reluctantly cites the 1994 gubernatorial campaign. That's when Ann Richards, an incumbent with a 60 percent approval rating, called him "Shrub" and "Prince George" and "someone who doesn't have a clue." Richards's main line of attack against Bush was that he had no public service credentials and had failed in business--so what did he really offer? She lost.

But Bush doesn't really want to talk about origin, because to talk about origin is to be introspective, and that is not him. In that way, he is like his father, who hated writers' attempts to stretch him out "on the couch," as he put it, and psychoanalyze him for their publications.

"It's a game. It's a game," says Bush. "Prove the negative. . . . But I don't take it seriously so I don't think about origins."

In the end, this could be the searing vulnerability that sinks George W's presidential candidacy. Or, it could be one of Campaign 2000's overdrawn caricatures that just fade away--the preoccupation of the "chattering class," as Bush maintains, and political opponents who are "spinning away, spinning away."

Bush's advisers are actively promoting parallels with Reagan, who was tagged as a lightweight but who nonetheless enjoyed great popularity. "It didn't detract from Reagan's success," says Al Hubbard, a Bush adviser who was Vice President Quayle's deputy chief of staff. "And I think that's what will happen with Bush."

He already has eclipsed the underachievement of his early adult years and is now the Biggest Bush of All, the Republican presidential front runner, with more money, more endorsements and more hoopla surrounding his candidacy than any rookie in memory. If he were to win the whole shebang, he would complete a remarkable rise from baseball team owner to chief executive of the United States in six short years.

And yet he finds his smile is being scrutinized as one more sign that he is treating his quest like a day at the amusement park, that he is not a serious man.

"It's amazing that instead of analyzing education policy, we're analyzing how one's lips are formed," he says. "But I do take myself lightly. And I take the process lightly. Not the whole process. I take the job seriously, and I take my foreign policy initiative seriously.

"But there are moments in this journey where I sit there and look at somebody asking me a question about empty suit or something and I can't help but smile and think, 'You know, this is amazing. It's an amazing process where somebody is asking that question.' "

CAPTION: George W. Bush seems perplexed by the recurring questions about his brainpower (as in the "Doonesbury" cartoon strip, left): "Intelligence is can you think logically. Intelligence is do you have a basis from which to make decisions. Intelligence in politics is do you have good instincts."

CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush: Lightweight, or just lighthearted? Above, a smiling Bush in New Hampshire early this month; left, as a Yalie in 1964; and with Clay Johnson, now his chief of staff, at the state capitol in Texas in 1998.