In recent weeks, as the nomination of Ronald Reagan has become certain, the way the press writes about him has changed subtly. Rarely is he described as an ideologue; rarely is he described as a man too old to be president. Rather, it is often hinted that he is not bright enough for the job. He is a nice man who means well, it is often said, but he does not have the intellectual capacity to grasp the complex issues of the day -- both domestic and foreign.
The hints do not mean that the press is out to get Reagan. To some degree, such insinuations are inevitable, given Reagan's background and political stance. Both his academic record, which was undistinguished, and his subsequent career as a movie actor, do not reassure people that he is a man fit for the highest office. Moreover, Reagan belongs to the right-wing of the Republican Party, and journalists have always regarded Republicans and generally stupider than Democrats -- with right-wing Republicans usually considered the stupidest of them all. "Neanderthal" is an epithet often applied to the right-wing Republicans, whereas left-wing Democrats are never thought to be stupid -- only naive and misguided.
Perhaps Reagan is not intelligent enough to be president, but how intelligent does a president have to be? No one would want a stupid man to be president, but it does not follow that the smartest men are always the most prudent and discerning political thinkers or actors. Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre, two of the most intelligent men of the century, are not known for their political acumen; the former waxed enthusiastic about Hitler, and the latter -- until the last days of his life -- was insistent that the Soviet Union was a "progressive" state. Brilliant people -- from Bertrand Russell to Anthony Blunt -- have often been politically foolish. As Saul Bellow has said, "A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep."
Have the best American president been noted for their intelligence? A look at the historical record gives us no clear answers. Lincoln probably had the most profound mind of all American presidents and he clearly was a great president. Wilson was highly intelligent, but I think of several less intelligent presidents whom I would rate above him -- Eisenhower, for one. Washington was a great president, but he was not nearly as brilliant as some of the men who surrounded him, especially Hamilton.
One of the most brilliant Americans of his day, Hamiliton would have made a poor president. Why? Because he did not possess a trait that I recall being graded for in public school: works and plays well with others. Hamilton lacked the political temperament; his manner was such that he was rarely persuasive. He was held in high esteem by a band of devoted admirers, but he was hated by many others -- eventually by many in his own party. He was also a man of poor judgment, often choosing to associate himself with men who damaged his own reputation.
Intelligence, then, is only one of a number of characteristics that a man should posses in order to be a good president. He needs to be a man who is comfortable with himself, so that he can take advice from those who are his intellectual superiors. He needs also to be a man of prudence and courage -- knowing when to court public opinion and when to ignore it.
Finally, he should be an experience politician -- well versed in the art of political maneuvering, as Franklin Roosevelt was. Politics, as Michael Oakeshott has said, is an art, not a science. It cannot be taught, and the skills needed to perform it successfully cannot even be carefully defined. It is an art that one learns slowly after practicing it for many years.
William Buckley onces said that he'd rather be governed by the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than by the Harvard faculty. I'm not sure about that; they might be equally bad. I would put it another way: I'd rather be governed by professional politicians than by political scientists. The latter may contribute to our understanding of politics, but it is doubtful that they would be good political actors.
All the things being equal, a president who reads history and philosophy is to be preferred to a president who reads mysteries and westerns, but all things are never equal. We should remember that many ingredients go into the making of good president, and intelligence is only one of them.