Donald Trump’s boastful ignorance in his interview with radio host Hugh Hewitt reminded me of a story that my late colleague David Broder told about former senator Bill Bradley.
The two were talking about whether Bradley would run for president. Bradley demurred. He wasn’t ready to run, he told Broder, because he didn’t feel that he had a good enough grip on the Soviet Union. The basketball star who famously practiced making baskets from every conceivable point on the court hadn’t quite mastered the Soviet shot.
Your first thought on hearing that story, and comparing it with Trump’s unapologetic know-nothing-ism, may be the same as mine: Those were the days. Oh, for a candidate disciplined enough to prepare for the toughest job on earth. Oh, for one modest enough to know his limitations — or to recognize he has any.
Indeed, for all Chris Christie’s shut-up-and-sit-down bluster, the New Jersey governor’s explanation for not running in 2012 — “I wasn’t ready” to be president — had a certain Bradleyesque charm.
Except — and this was my second thought — Bradley never came close to being president once he eventually decided, in 2000, to run. Perhaps he could have benefited from less tentativeness, and more Trumpian ego. Similarly, Christie’s flagging 2016 prospects suggest that he might have been better off seizing a moment that looks far more favorable in retrospect.
My point here is not to excuse Trump’s lack of knowledge but to put the matter of presidential qualifications into perspective. The essential characteristics can be divided into three baskets: intellect, experience and temperament.
How you value the significance of each is an individual judgment. I think of them like Russian nesting dolls, each barely larger than the next, but growing in importance from intellect to temperament.
There is distinction between intellect and knowledge — you can be a hugely smart person without knowing that Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani is the head of the Iranian Quds Force — but there is also a link between the two.
Someone with the intelligence necessary to be president should also have the intellectual curiosity to have educated himself on, say, the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah. The difference between the two groups does not matter to him yet, Trump told Hewitt, but “it will when it’s appropriate.”
There is a legitimate point underlying Trump’s airy dismissiveness in the Hewitt interview — that he’ll simply hire the best if and when he lands the deal. You don’t necessarily need, or even want, a president who’s the smartest person in the room. You want the one with the judgment (experience) and confidence (temperament) to be comfortable when surrounded by the brightest experts.
That is why, for me, experience edges out intellect as a presidential qualification. In the end, the smartest experts on substance, the canniest legislative tacticians, can and do disagree. The exquisitely difficult judgment calls that a president must make aren’t simply a matter of being able to name international players in a journalistic pop quiz.
Rather, these moments call for leaders who have watched similar scenes play out so many times that, as with Bradley’s rigorous practice regimen, they have developed an instinctive sense of where the ball is, and where it is likely to rebound.
This quality is what President Obama was referring to in his podcast interview with Marc Maron in June, when he talked about how he would be a better candidate, and president, an imaginary third time around. “I know what I’m doing, and I’m fearless,” Obama observed. “And also part of that fearlessness is, because you’ve screwed up enough times, that you know that it’s all happened. I’ve been through this.”
Yet the primary ingredient — and the fundamental attribute that disqualifies Trump from the presidency — is temperament. This is a catchall that includes the capacity to lead and inspire; qualities of integrity and discipline; aspects of personality that range from steadiness to charm. To take the most vivid modern example, Richard Nixon’s intelligence and experience could not compensate for his paranoia and dishonesty.
Trump’s temperament issues are not Nixonian. They are distinctively Trumpian: his incessant need for self-aggrandizement, his reflexive intolerance for being disrespected. These form a dangerous brew in a potential president, equal parts narcissism and its mirror image, insecurity.
Donald Trump shouldn’t be president, but it’s not because he doesn’t know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas, or Quds and Kurds. It’s because he isn’t embarrassed by this ignorance, or at least pretends not to be.