Maybe not as dumb as he seems, but…
When liberals look at GWB, they see a man like Gerald Ford as described by LBJ; someone who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. IOW, not too swift. Whatever the wing nuts see is irrelevant because they are either blinded by ideology or too dull to evaluate Bush’s intelligence. Those who have spent some time with him report that he is very bright and only lacks intellectual curiosity. Who’s right?
Intelligence in humans is multidimensional and not a single factor. True brilliance in some area can co-exist with practically none in other areas as seen in savants. We can speak of perceptual, emotional and physical intelligence as well as artistic and musical intelligence. However, what we generally mean when we use the word intelligence is the individual capacity for academic achievement, intellectual pursuits, professional accomplishments and logical deductions.. That thing that IQ tests measure. The sum of cognitive abilities that includes language, memory and reasoning abilities. Some of which may be innate and others of which may be developed early in life from both stimulation and nutrition. It remains stable throughout a life as long as brain injury or organic disease doesn’t develop. And is distributed throughout the white population in a normal bell curve. (I would like to think that the range of individual differences that exist today would shrink dramatically if everybody got high quality prenatal and infant nutrition and was raised in a stimulating and loving environment, but maybe the range wouldn’t narrow and the cognitive abilities of everybody would increase. Before anybody jumps all over me, I don‘t reject that IQ tests are racially biased. The new edition of the Stanford-Binet from the mid-1980‘s is much better instrument, but may not have eliminated the bias.)
Regardless of whether or not you accept IQ tests as valid measures of cognitive abilities, they only do in a systematic format what all of us do everyday when evaluating others. Mentally handicapped, very slow, a little slow, average, smart, very smart and brilliant are turned into scores. Studying an individual’s problem solving methods, verbal fluency, math skills and cognitive speed and assigning one of the categories to the individual would rarely be different from how the individual would score on an IQ test, but the latter would be faster to measure. If all our children could be measured and we had educationally sophisticated schools, “no child left behind” could become a reality. As we’re way short of that, we struggle to motivate our children. Instill dreams in them. Sometimes we sell them short, and sometimes the dream is beyond them. The saddest recent story of the latter was the man in Colorado who killed his wife instead of admitting that he couldn’t make it through college and go on to medical school like his father.
At one time I bragged that I could train a monkey in basic accounting and bookkeeping. Then one day I was confronted with a motivated and hard working student who could barely grasp the simplest fundamental building blocks of accounting and not retain them for twenty-four hours. For a week I worked with her on what most students got in an hour. Once I was satisfied that stress or emotion were not interfering with her learning ability (she wasn’t frustrated or conscious of the fact that she hadn’t mastered essential concepts), I gave her a rough IQ measurement test. She was very slow and I learned that I couldn’t train 16% of the population in basic accounting. (I also got her into another work skills training program where she could and did succeed.)
The uncomfortable fact about “intelligence” is that certain areas of study or professional pursuit are beyond the cognitive abilities of some people. IQ scores are a statistical construct that gives a window into “intelligence.” The mean is set at 100. Half of us fall above the mean and half of us fall below it. 68% of us fall into the “normal” range. 16% are assigned to the above and 16% to the below “normal” categories (scores higher than 115 and lower than 85). Not too much should be made of those numbers -- there is no meaningful difference between the cognitive abilities or professional achievements of those with an IQ of 114 and 116. Many people with an IQ closer to the mean will be experienced by others as “smart” and some that are “above average” will be experienced as a bit dull or dense. The IQ scores do not capture the qualitative differences within and between the general ranges. We do know that few people with an IQ below 115 attend and graduate from academically rigorous advanced degree programs. Few below 130 will be found in traditional medical schools and PhD programs, particularly in the sciences. A motivated individual that struggles to keep pace with fellow students is performing at the outer limits of his or her cognitive abilities for that discipline. Motivation can widen an individual’s potential but not substitute for cognitive abilities that aren’t wide enough. Therefore, those of “average” cognitive capacity will not become doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs.
Looking at GWB, his academic and life achievements, verbal skills, comprehension speed and even physical coordination, all paint the same picture. There are only two anomalies. The first is his SAT scores. The second is those reports that he is bright. Allow me to tackle the latter one first.
At a young age, some people learn how to “beat the system.” Instead of working hard and struggling with tasks and assignments that are difficult for them or beyond their ability, that measure their accomplishments and “intelligence,” they find other routes to gaining assessments from peers and adults who then label them as “smart,” “above average” or mature. The tests they can’t avoid and on which they don’t score well, instead of contradicting the assessments from adults and peers gives them a second label, “underachieving.” Class clown, “mother’s little helper” and confidant of adults are a few examples of these strategies. They develop (or may be born with) cleverness and deviousness., both of which can be mistaken for “intelligence.” They are usually good talkers, and if they are lucky enough to end up in a sales profession, they can become very successful. Luckier are those that are born wealthy. That have either family wealth or power that others want to get close to.
GWB couldn’t get into law school. A failure that puts his cognitive ability below the “above average” range. With motivation and diligent preparatory work, he may have gotten in, but that wouldn’t make him “above average.” MBA programs back in the early 1970’s weren’t all that competitive, particularly for the children of the wealthy. One of his professors found him so dull that he voiced his amazement that Harvard had admitted Bush into the program. His knowledge of accounting and finance is as scarily deficient as his knowledge of history.
Public speaking is a learned skill that is almost always learned in an educational setting. It takes time and effort to learn how to do it well, as well as certain amount of “intelligence.” “Good talkers” in small informal settings may have an advantage over others in developing public speaking skills, but maybe not. I’ve seen “good talkers” get worse instead of better in speech classes and training programs. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Some people with a talent or flair for something can function well until they try to improve their “game.” What was smooth and unconscious becomes self-conscious and awkward as they become aware of everything they are doing wrong. Some or all of what they did cannot be built upon and must be unlearned and replaced with solid basic skills. Rove tried to tweak Bush’s public speaking style when Bush needed radical surgery. Therefore, it’s not surprising that in spite of the massive amount of time that has gone into working on Bush’s public speaking that he would be generally worse than when he first ran against Ann Richards.
A high percentage of people never tire of hearing themselves talk. They like people who appear to listen to them. Who nod and smile approvingly at what they say. Who appear to understand what they are saying. If you don’t look too closely, Bush is competent at this in brief spurts. But he prefers to be the center of attention. Thus, when serving on the Board of Cater-Air, instead of remaining silent at board meetings and collecting a check for doing nothing, he was a distracting presence, clowning with off-color jokes. He’s effective at getting out from under a tight spite by clowning. However, the content and quality of his jokes provide a clue as to his intelligence. The focus is almost always on the personal, either himself or others; concrete rather than abstract. He’s incapable of recognizing the inappropriateness of either his jokes or the settings in which they are made. What’s funny about “Hey, Cooper, I thought you’d be in jail” or chuckling about Fitzgerald’s investigation?
Not to dismiss other personality components such as emotional maturity, self-confidence and ego strength that can interfere with assessing the cognitive abilities of an individual, I’m reasonably confident that on a standard measure of intelligence, GWB is close to the mean. IOW something close to half the people in this country are brighter than him. They have more intellectual curiosity than him because curiosity is not independent of but integral to intelligence. GWB gets by on being personable, giving the appearance that he understands what is being said by others and avoiding tasks that would measure his expertise and competence. He doesn’t read but depends on others to tell him what’s going on. Other than a single poem, that would make a twelve year old blush because it was so bad, there is no public record of anything he’s written. He garbles words because his vocabulary is deficient, far below what he would have been exposed to at Yale and Harvard. With all the training and coaching this man is subjected to, he never betrays anything but the most superficial understanding of any topic of importance. A person of “average” intelligence that is motivated could do better than that. Someone brighter couldn’t help but do better. He’s average and coddled to get by on Gentleman’s C’s.
Now those troubling SAT scores. They were above average in the population that took the SAT at the time. This was less than half the high school seniors and those scores are definitely in the above average range of the entire population. There are some people who have “test smarts;” do well on multiple choice tests when they know nothing. Maybe that’s how he got all those passing grades. Or maybe I underestimated his intelligence. Why those are easy to reject is that Bush is a braggart and his team works hard to convince the public that Bush is brighter than he seems. Neither has made any effort to use those scores to refute Bush’s critics beyond releasing them. Like his TANG record, they don’t talk about his SAT scores. And when BushCo doesn’t talk, they don’t want anyone looking too closely at whatever they have presented or represented. Wonder why all these years later they would have any concern that these might not stand up to scrutiny?
Some recent research suggests that men get their intelligence from their mothers. I don’t know the quality of this research of if it will stand up to further investigation. If it does, then maybe that explains the difference between GHB and GWB. However, GHB has never struck me as being particularly intelligent. Perhaps the difference between the two is the difference between a slacker and a worker.
Compared to something like half the population, GWB isn’t a dummy. The rest either correctly perceive his cognitive capacity or live in a state of denial. The most interesting are those who perceive GWB to be average, just like themselves and think that is good enough to be POTUS. They wouldn’t select a doctor, lawyer, dentist or accountant using that criteria. Wouldn’t even want to consult with the professional that graduated at the bottom of their class and had gone on to be professionally mostly incompetent. They may not choose to be friends with people much smarter than they are. May not even marry someone outside their intellectual range (although, generally women prefer a man that is smarter and men aren’t comfortable with a women who is). God only knows how they convinced themselves that Average Joe is qualified for POTUS.
(A note for those who claim that GWB can’t be dumb because he and Gore received similar grades in college. First, in their argument, they are stipulating that Gore doesn’t seem dumb and GWB does. More importantly, grades alone are weak way to compare two individuals unless they attended the same institution, at the same time and took the same courses. A “Gentleman’s C” is not the same as an earned C, and I’m not aware that Gore received the former. Even grades in the same course from the same instructor will vary. I once confronted a professor with an “A” paper from the prior year that was far inferior to one of mine that only received a “B.” He didn’t disagree on my assessment of the two papers, and explained that his grading included an assessment of the performance level each student was capable of achieving.)