Quiz shows are back in fashion, so the heat is on Hillary Rodham Clinton and George W. Bush.
The Texas governor and Republican presidential hopeful was asked by a Boston television interviewer to name the leaders of four countries -- and could come up with only one. That was no big deal in itself, but it raised an interesting question about Bush: Is he smart enough to be president?
Everywhere the First Lady and Senate aspirant goes, she is grilled on her possible policy disagreements with her husband, the president. But the truly important question about Mrs. Clinton is: Is she shrewd enough to survive the rigors of a New York political race?
Note the difference. No one questions the Yale Law School alumna's brainpower. She is President Clinton's equal when it comes to mastering even the arcane details of federal programs. By the time she had finished her "listening tour" of upstate counties, she could recite as many facts about their populations, products and history as the presidents of the local chambers of commerce.
But there have been lots of doubts expressed about Hillary Clinton's political instincts -- so many, in fact, that last week she was forced to deny the rumors that she might not run. She promised she would make the race, an affirmation that wouldn't have been necessary had her own awkward performance not raised so many questions about her capacity to wage an effective campaign.
With Bush, it's just the opposite. He's shown in two successful Texas races that he is a helluva campaigner -- and nothing in the presidential contest so far has dimmed his reputation as a fellow who seems perfectly at ease working a crowd or looking into the lens of a TV camera.
But there are good reasons to question his intellectual prowess. By his own account, he went through two prestigious colleges (Yale and Harvard Business School) without ever aspiring to academic distinction. Friends from his adult years are unanimous in saying that the only avid reader in the Bush household is his wife, Laura.
So what? I once thought that the smarter a politician is, the better equipped for high office. But voters wisely weigh talents on a different scale. If the presidential candidates in 1980 had been presented with a set of policy documents and a blank sheet of paper on which to summarize the options and recommend a course of action, nuclear engineer Jimmy Carter easily would have outscored former actor Ronald Reagan.
But Reagan was a political natural and a gifted leader -- one who had clear goals, strong principles and a great gift for translating abstract issues into compelling narratives conveying lessons anyone could grasp.
Bush seems to be blessed with some of that same talent. True, he has yet to be tested in tough competition within his own party; that may come Thursday in his first debate. But he defeated two smart Democrats in his Texas races, and so far he has met every challenge he's encountered in the presidential contest without breaking a sweat. He flunked the local TV interviewer's pop quiz on foreign leaders, but in his first national Sunday morning workout with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," he emerged unscathed.
For Hillary Clinton, the preliminaries have been a much more daunting experience. Ever since she began her exploratory trips, she has been accident-prone, and every couple weeks she stumbles into some new predicament, sometimes with the Puerto Ricans, sometimes with the Jews and sometimes with voters who wore Yankee caps for years before she thought to don one.
The First Lady is dazzlingly smart -- and she may be a better speaker than her husband, who is no slouch. But, as I learned from watching her during the health care fight, she sometimes has a tin ear. Where both the president and Gov. Bush are skilled at sizing up an audience and finding ways to fulfill its expectations, Mrs. Clinton can be oblivious to the effect she is having on the people in the room.
In the retrospective reporting Haynes Johnson and I did for our book on the health care fight, we found many occasions when Mrs. Clinton either did not hear -- or chose not to heed -- what the people with whom she was negotiating were really saying to her. Instances she cited of people going back on their word or breaking their commitments often turned out instead to be examples of negotiations that failed because the First Lady tuned out what she was being told.
I do not know that Bush will win or Hillary Clinton lose; much will depend on the quality of their opponents. But his political smarts arm him for battle, I think, more than her intellectual gifts.