George W. Bush is smarter than you
by Keith Hennessey
The new George W. Bush Presidential Center is being dedicated this week. This seems like a good time to bust a longstanding myth about our former President, my former boss.
I teach a class at Stanford Business School titled "Financial Crises in the U.S. and Europe." During one class session while explaining the events of September 2008, I kept referring to the efforts of the threesome of Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Tim Geithner, who were joined at the hip in dealing with firm-specific problems as they arose.
One of my students asked "How involved was President Bush with what was going on?" I smiled and responded, "What you really mean is, `Was President Bush smart enough to understand what was going on,' right?"
The class went dead silent. Everyone knew that this was the true meaning of the question. Kudos to that student for asking the hard question and for framing it so politely. I had stripped away that decorum and exposed the raw nerve.
I looked hard at the 60 MBA students and said "President Bush is smarter than almost every one of you."
More silence. I could tell they were waiting for me to break the tension, laugh, and admit I was joking.
I did not. A few shifted in their seats, then I launched into a longer answer. While it was a while ago, here is an amalgam of that answer and others I have given in similar contexts.
* "I am not kidding. You are quite an intelligent group. Don't take it personally, but President Bush is smarter than almost every one of you. Were he a student here today, he would consistently get "HP" (High Pass) grades without having to work hard, and he'd get an "H" (High, the top grade) in any class where he wanted to put in the effort.
* For more than six years it was my job to help educate President Bush about complex economic policy issues and to get decisions from him on impossibly hard policy choices. In meetings and in the briefing materials we gave him in advance we covered issues in far more depth than I have been discussing with you this quarter because we needed to do so for him to make decisions.
* President Bush is extremely smart by any traditional standard. He's highly analytical and was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer. It was occasionally a little embarrassing when he would jump ahead of one of his Cabinet secretaries in a policy discussion and the advisor would struggle to catch up. He would sometimes force us to accelerate through policy presentations because he so quickly grasped what we were presenting.
* I use words like briefing and presentation to describe our policy meetings with him, but those are inaccurate. Every meeting was a dialogue, and you had to be ready at all times to be grilled by him and to defend both your analysis and your recommendation. That was scary.
* We treat Presidential speeches as if they are written by speechwriters, then handed to the President for delivery. If I could show you one experience from my time working for President Bush, it would be an editing session in the Oval with him and his speechwriters. You think that me cold-calling you is nerve-wracking? Try defending a sentence you inserted into a draft speech, with President Bush pouncing on the slightest weakness in your argument or your word choice.
* In addition to his analytical speed, what most impressed me were his memory and his substantive breadth. We would sometimes have to brief him on an issue that we had last discussed with him weeks or even months before. He would remember small facts and arguments from the prior briefing and get impatient with us when we were rehashing things we had told him long ago.
* And while my job involved juggling a lot of balls, I only had to worry about economic issues. In addition to all of those, at any given point in time he was making enormous decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan, on hunting al Qaeda and keeping America safe. He was making choices not just on taxes and spending and trade and energy and climate and health care and agriculture and Social Security and Medicare, but also on education and immigration, on crime and justice issues, on environmental policy and social policy and politics. Being able to handle such substantive breadth and depth, on such huge decisions, in parallel, requires not just enormous strength of character but tremendous intellectual power. President Bush has both."
On one particularly thorny policy issue on which his advisors had strong and deep disagreements, over the course of two weeks we (his senior advisors) held a series of three 90-minute meetings with the President. Shortly after the third meeting we asked for his OK to do a fourth. He said, "How about rather than doing another meeting on this, I instead tell you now what each person will say." He then ran through half a dozen of his advisors by name and precisely detailed each one's arguments and pointed out their flaws. (Needless to say there was no fourth meeting.)
Every prominent politician has a public caricature, one drawn initially by late-night comedy joke writers and shaped heavily by the press and one's political opponents. The caricature of President Bush is that of a good ol' boy from Texas who is principled and tough, but just not that bright.
That caricature was reinforced by several factors:
* The press and his opponents highlighted President Bush's occasional stumbles when giving a speech. President Obama's similar verbal miscues are ignored. Ask yourself: if every public statement you made were recorded and all your verbal fumbles were tweeted, how smart would you sound? Do you ever use the wrong word or phrase, or just botch a sentence for no good reason? I know I do.
* President Bush intentionally aimed his public image at average Americans rather than at Cambridge or Upper East Side elites. Mitt Romney's campaign was predicated on "I am smart enough to fix a broken economy," while George W. Bush's campaigns stressed his values, character, and principles rather than boasting about his intellect. He never talked about graduating from Yale and Harvard Business School, and he liked to lower expectations by pretending he was just an average guy. Example: "My National Security Advisor Condi Rice is a Stanford professor, while I'm a C student. And look who's President.
* There is a bias in much of the mainstream press and commentariat that people from outside of NY-BOS-WAS-CHI-SEA-SF-LA are less intelligent, or at least well educated. Many public commenters harbor an anti-Texas (and anti-Southern, and anti-Midwestern) intellectual bias. They mistakenly treat John Kerry as smarter than George Bush because John Kerry talks like an Ivy League professor while George Bush talks like a Texan.
* President Bush enjoys interacting with the men and women of our armed forces and with elite athletes. He loves to clear brush on his ranch. He loved interacting with the U.S. Olympic Team. He doesn't windsurf off Nantucket, he rides a 100K mountain bike ride outside of Waco with wounded warriors. He is an intense, competitive athlete and a "guy's guy." His hobbies and habits reinforce a caricature of a [dumb] jock, in contrast to cultural sophisticates who enjoy antiquing and opera. This reinforces the other biases against him.
I assume that some who read this will react automatically with disbelief and sarcasm. They think they know that President Bush is unintelligent because, after all, everyone knows that. They will assume that I am wrong, or blinded by loyalty, or lying. They are certain that they are smarter than George Bush.
I ask you simply to consider the possibility that I'm right, that he is smarter than you.
If you can, find someone who has interacted directly with him outside the public spotlight. Ask that person about President Bush's intellect. I am confident you will hear what I heard dozens of times from CEOs after they met with him: "Gosh, I had no idea he was that smart."
At a minimum I hope you will test your own assumptions and thinking about our former President. I offer a few questions to help that process.
* Upon what do you base your view of President Bush's intellect? How much is it shaped by the conventional wisdom about him? How much by verbal miscues highlighted by the press?
* Do you discount your estimate of his intellect because he's from Texas or because of his accent? Because he's an athlete and a ranch owner? Because he never advertises that he went to Yale and Harvard?
* This is a hard one, for liberals only. Do you assume that he is unintelligent because he made policy choices with which you disagree? If so, your logic may be backwards. "I disagree with choice X that President Bush made. No intelligent person could conclude X, therefore President Bush is unintelligent." Might it be possible that an intelligent, thoughtful conservative with different values and priorities than your own might have reached a different conclusion than you? Do you really think your policy views derive only from your intellect?
And finally, if you base your view of President Bush's intellect on a public image and caricature shaped by late night comedians, op-ed writers, TV pundits, and Twitter, is that a smart thing for you to do?
Report from the old sod
The vast majority of the West lives in comfort unimaginable to people of the recent past. Our poor don’t suffer from starvation, they suffer from obesity. Supposedly impoverished youths rioting in London don’t steal bread, they steal iPods.
Decadence is nothing new to the West, but one country’s recent economic downturn serves as a fascinating look at the phenomenon in a modern context: Ireland. It is the land of my birth and where I have lived most of my life and it serves as a microcosm of greater Western malaise.
The Celtic Tiger boom that occurred in Ireland - beginning roughly in the late nineties and lasting until 2007 - was a period of economic growth unmatched by any other in the country’s history. Ireland was always an outlier in Western Europe, both geographically and figuratively. It was conservative, religious and poor. The boom changed all that and by 2005 The Economist ranked Ireland number one in the world for quality of life.
During all this, something strange happened. Throughout history the Irish had been a people who gazed out upon the world, emigrating in droves. But with the advent of prosperity they ceased to do so. They developed a myopia which seemingly prevented them taking notice of anything beyond Irish shores.
A massive growth in property prices accompanied the boom. Prices for even modest houses skyrocketed. Non-descript suburban homes sold for over half a million euro and a seven-bedroom red-brick in South Dublin sold for €58 million. Nobody asked why a three-bedroom semi-detached house in nowheresville cost more than similar properties in central Frankfurt or Helsinki. Nobody took the slightest notice of the property market collapse in Singapore. Ireland became so wealthy its people could afford to be completely oblivious to economic reality. The rest of the world became a place Irish people went on holiday, not a place to learn lessons from.
This infuriating ignorance hasn’t gone away. It simply manifests itself in different ways.
If one was to measure the success of a nation one would probably start by looking at markers like GDP per capita and the country’s United Nations Human Development Index rank, and so on. By these measurements Ireland comes near the top of the global pecking order. The country has the 11th highest average income in the world (World Bank, 2011) and is 7th in the world on the Human Development Index. Basic social welfare payments are among the among the most generous anywhere. The country is, by all accounts, an extremely wealthy corner of the planet.
You wouldn’t think this by talking to Irish people, though. The phrase ‘the country is on its knees’ is used with such frequency that you could be forgiven for thinking an angel gets its wings every time it’s uttered. Ireland’s sinking from the richest country in the world to a poverty-stricken 11th is apparently an affront to the dignity of the Irish. Some argue the tired line that during the good times the rich got richer and the poor got poorer, skewing the GDP statistic, but that is nonsense. Income inequality was reduced substantially in Ireland during the boom, actually bucking a global trend.
Quoting the abovementioned favourable rankings to the general populace will usually be met with inane cynicism. The essence of Irish political discourse is to negatively criticise politicians until losing sight of reality. Statesmen like WT Cosgrave who oversaw a peaceful handover of power while the nation was in its infancy trail behind the Left’s misguided figureheads in popularity contests.
There is no acknowledgement by the Left of the role neo-liberal free market principles had to play in making the country rich in the first place. In the Leftist’s political worldview, western prosperity and privilege is as natural as gravity or sunrise. In their alternative universe, an Ireland in 2005 under an anarcho-syndicalist government would have been as rich as it was under the centre-right coalition of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. The only difference is that under this hypothetical Leftist government Ireland would still be a utopia today.
Relatively speaking Ireland is going through a rough patch but the country is still fantastically wealthy. Newspapers report on families barely surviving on six-figure incomes. A university professor has been quoted as saying life was ‘a struggle’ on his salary of close to a quarter million euro per annum. The Irish Times published the story of a family unable to regularly put food on the table, despite the household’s annual income being a very healthy €65,000 a year.
It’s all about priorities. But nobody’s willing to give up recent gains, even if they lived just fine without them before.
When a person gets used to a certain quality of life they naturally become agitated when their level of comfort declines even slightly. It is human nature. The corporate boss on six figures a year would consider his lifestyle severely dented by a ten thousand a year salary cut. Paris Hilton would probably commit suicide were she to wake up one morning an average working woman making thirty thousand a year, her frivolous heiress existence nothing but a memory. Similarly, a ten euro per week cut to one of the highest unemployment benefits in the world is seen by the Left as a devastation of ‘ordinary people’ in the way something truly appalling like war was only a few decades before.
People’s expectations have risen high due to globalisation, capitalism and free markets. Almost every part of the world has improved on a decade-by-decade basis over the last fifty years, especially liberal democracies. Elsewhere, too. Any time you see a rural Indonesian or Bolivian on a cell phone it means they have enough money to eat and communicate with ease. Nobody who’s hungry spends their money on phonecalls.
The Left has seized on the idea that the failure of a few banks is a victory for their politics, but it is in fact a refutation: a genuinely free market government would never have ‘bailed out’ any banks. They would have been allowed to die. It was over-regulation and protectionism that ‘brought Ireland to its knees’ (ie 11th on the global rich list).
The Irish Left deride the general public as lazy because they complain incessantly but never take to the streets in numbers large enough to realise the Left’s juvenile revolutionary fantasies. This is yet more evidence that Ireland is a fine place to be. Despite our complaining there is simply no appetite for - or need for - major change, let alone revolution. It’s not that the people are lazy or that they are especially apathetic. They’re just too comfortable, still, five years into a recession.
Despite the subconscious national contentment that exists in Ireland, the moaning and solipsism continues. Just as it was during the Celtic Tiger, Irish people in recession time cannot see a bigger picture. That Ireland is still richer than almost everywhere else in the world is simply par for the course; the natural order of things. No, the country must be richer, its public servants paid more, unemployment non-existent. In the minds of the majority, our status as a highly developed nation with ever more welfare benefits and dirt-cheap world-class university education exists in perpetuity, despite the realities of a modern world where an industrialised Asia contains billions of people who work more hours for less money.
The only comparison people make is of how we stack up to the Ireland of 2005. Nobody can see past that. It’s simply too distant.
For more blog postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, EYE ON BRITAIN and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated) and Coral reef compendium. (Updated as news items come in). GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten.
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