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RE: The Needed Mental Attributes Of A President; The Presidential Campaign And Forthcoming Appointments To The Supreme C

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Message Lawrence Velvel

February 29, 2008


RE:       The Needed Mental Attributes Of A President; The Presidential Campaign And Forthcoming Appointments To The Supreme Court; A Bail Out For Homeowners; And Bloomberg’s Game.


            Yesterday, at our faculty lunch table, I was marveling at the fact that a person as stupid and incompetent as George Bush has regularly shown himself to be, could appear so personable, charming and even intelligent as he was when speaking about (and to) the Boston Red Sox before the White House news media.  (Even discounting for the possible aid of speech writers, Bush really wasn’t half bad.)  A colleague responded with a remark that triggered a thought:  what we were seeing is an example of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  There is not just one form of intelligence, as psychologists long claimed.  There are many kinds, says Gardner in a now widely accepted view.  There is verbal/logical intelligence (the kind lawyers need), musical intelligence, kinetic or physical/athletic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, artistic intelligence, and so forth.  A person can have one kind in high degree and be deficient, or even wholly lacking, in others.


            Upon reflection, it is obvious that this is the story of Bush.  His amiable, good old boy persona reflects a certain kind of interpersonal intelligence, sometimes in high degree.  But he is totally lacking in the kind of analytical, logical, thoughtful intelligence needed by a leader, much less a President.  Americans, often being fools who vote for the more personally attractive guy, elected Bush twice.  They have learned to rue the day they did so, since he lacks the kind of intelligence that is more needed for a presidency. 


            This is relevant in the 2008 campaign.  I shall concede biases in what I am about to write, biases in some ways inconsistent with my generally highly antielitest views (a foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds, I think Emerson said).  Obama seems to have shown tremendous interpersonal and organizational intelligence in this campaign.  Not yet fully plumbed, many pundits say, is his analytical intelligence in the form of substantive ideas, plans, programs, etc.  I find it hard, however, to doubt his analytical intelligence.  Here is why (and here comes a bias that in a way is inconsistent with my generally antielitist views):  Obama was President of - - was the top guy on - - the Harvard Law Review.  In my day, anyone who was President of the Harvard Law Review inevitably was hugely bright as an analytical, verbal/logical matter, possibly (or probably) was even a genius.  Until somebody tells me it was different in Obama’s day (about 20 or 25 years later), I have to believe that the same still held true then (and now too I would imagine).  So I don’t have any doubts about Obama’s analytical intelligence, the kind a President needs.


            Hillary Clinton presents an interesting contrast.  Her interpersonal intelligence, at least in her public persona, does not seem all that high, shall we say?  One hears that people she works closely with adore her, but publicly she is far less appealing.  What about her analytical, verbal/logical ability?  Well, I once interviewed a tremendously bright Harvard law professor who had met her and was deeply impressed with her brightness (albeit very put off by her inconsistency, which perhaps even amounted to dishonesty).  And an enormously accomplished and intelligent former student of mine who was a high official in Bill Clinton’s administration said he is the smartest guy this person ever met.  But, you know, I nonetheless doubt that the Clintons are so smart as a verbal/logical, analytical matter.  And here is my partly horribly elitest reason for the doubt.  If the Clintons were so smart, how come they weren’t on the Yale Law Journal?  Law reviews after all, especially in those days, were populated by the best - - let’s even say it, the smartest - - students. 


            Now, I can think of lots of answers to the question I just asked, especially the following three answers.  Everyone admitted to the Yale Law School is very smart.  Maybe Bill and Hillary were concerned with other things, in particular politics and do goodism, rather than with academics or getting on the Law Journal.  And it is true that there are lots of lawyers who later do very well, and are very smart, but who weren’t on the law review.  (This is perhaps especially so when a person has to work his or her way through law school.)


Yet, despite these good reasons in opposition, the nagging partly elitist doubt still won’t down, and still less will it down when one considers how competitive Bill and Hillary are said to be.  Of course, in Hillary’s case, there also are other reasons to doubt her logical intelligence, although one could also say that there were other factors at play too.  The other reasons for doubt include:  The mess she made of health care circa 1994.  Her vote for an Iraq war and the complete unwillingness to concede error.  The overconfidence going into the campaign and the failure to understand the quality of the competition.  The flip flopping on positions.  I am even told - - is it true?  I find it hard to believe -- that she failed the D.C. bar exam the first time.  In those days (I don’t know about today), that bar exam was regarded as one of the easier ones to pass.  If she did flunk it, how in hell did that happen?  It wasn’t the New York or California bar exam you know, which are hard exams.  Did she not study?  Did she study but fail?  If she didn’t study, what does that say in a number of ways?  If she studied but failed, what does that say? 


And when all is said and done, it remains true that the one time that Bill and Hillary were in an environment where everybody might be thought pretty smart, at the Yale Law School, they didn’t stack up so well against the competition.  Maybe it should be no surprise that Hillary has been outmaneuvered by a guy who did stack up well against similar competition at Harvard.


            So, there you have it.  I think that the Democratic candidates’ performance in law school and on the bar says something about abilities one needs to be President.  We have seen, after all, the disasters wrought by a President who lacks those abilities.  My view is partly elitest and contrary to my general antielitest feelings.  But I fear it is right nonetheless. 


            I keep saying the view is only partly elitist.  For, to bring up a thought triggered by a lunch table conversation today, it is also true that my view can be thought to posit that, despite their high LSAT scores and college grades, not everyone at the Yale Law School, or other “elite” law schools, is necessarily all that smart.  I do think that high college grades and stratospheric LSAT scores do not necessarily mean that someone is especially bright, even in an analytical, logical/verbal way, and that thought is highly antielitest - - and totally contrary to the conventional wisdom.  (Imagine - - saying that not everyone at the “elite” Yale Law School is all that smart, when the joke is, as was also said at our lunch table, that people who can’t get into the Yale Law School go to Harvard Law School.)  So, there is an antielitist side to a view which in another way is elitest.


            All of this stuff about what might be shown by an experience in higher education brings up John McCain.  I am told - - again, is it true? - - that he was pretty close to anchor man in his class.  (I believe - - correct me if I’m wrong - - that anchor man is the term for last in the class at Annapolis, and that goat is the word for last in the class at West Point.  (George Pickett, appointed to West Point by Abraham Lincoln - - if you can believe that - - was, I think, the goat in his class at the Point.))  Does his class standing (if what I was told is true) say anything about McCain’s level of intellectual intelligence, his analytical intelligence (or his mathematical/scientific/technological intelligence, since it was the Naval Academy)?  Well, I don’t know, though to be consistent about it, I’d have to guess yes, although one might also think his class standing was in good part a result of his being, apparently, a screwoff.  More recently, though, his really stupid involvement in the Keating Five scandal, his very recent flip flopping on the Iraq war and torture when there was no good reason for the flip flopping, and, most of all, his view that we should be ready for a 100 years war, cast serious doubt on his smarts.  Can he really be serious about the 100 year war stuff?  Is he nuts?


            You know, Bill Maher made a hugely perceptive comment about McCain the other night.  Pointing out that McCain’s grandfather and father were each famous admirals (and McCain started out in the Navy), Maher said that a problem with McCain is that he regards war as the natural state of affairs.  I was delighted to hear that said by someone with a public voice which is heard widely.  For I myself have been saying for some time that one of the major problems with our generation, McCain’s and mine, is that we grew up with nearly continuous war, and many of our generation came to believe that war is inevitable and to be expected.  Such a view is disastrous; and it is unintelligent because it will make disastrous war more likely and wreck the country in the process.  Yet it is the view held by McCain, so it is hard to think him intelligent or fit to be President.


* * * *

            Let me turn briefly to a different subject, one the Presidential candidates have not been discussing, but which is highly important:  the selection of federal Justices and judges.  Without getting deeply into it, I’ve noticed that sometimes I say I’ll write in more depth about something later, but never get around to it.  Well I do plan to write more on this later, and hope I do get to it, perhaps as near term as within a week or two. 


            In the meanwhile, let me say this.  As extensively discussed by Jan Greenburg in her recent book and at a full day conference at MSL, the reactionary right has succeeded in creating, or is no more than a whisker away from creating, the Supreme Court that it wants.  There are four hard line conservatives, and one middleman who is often conservative.  Another conservative appointment or two and it’s all over for the next 20 to 40 years.  As said about abortion by one of Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court clerks (quoted in a recent biography of Blackmun), decisions will be made “‘once and for all by some right wing minority’” of the electorate. 

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.
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