The wait is over. We have our winners! Five days ago I challenged Kerry supporters to write an essay defending their champion's intellect The two entries that follow towered above the competition. (Actually, in spite of over 25,000 visitors to the site the last few days, they were the only entrants.) The first comes courtesy of reader Steve Tarlow, the second from Shayna Englin. Working with woefully limited tools, both proved remarkably game.
Without further adieu, their essays. My commentary regarding their efforts is at the bottom of the post.
Kerry’s Brain: A Defense
You’ve challenged me to support my contention that John Kerry does indeed have a first-class brain. In the last few days I’ve done some research (hardly exhaustive) on the subject and am now, as it were, reporting for duty.
For starters, I looked through some accounts of his school years. While I couldn’t uncover any academic records, I did find that at St. Paul’s, Yale and BC Law, he seems to have left a profound impression on many for his remarkable oratorical skills, his exceptional ability to think on his feet. He is still remembered vividly for these skills.
At St. Paul’s, where Kerry won many debating prizes and gained a reputation for intellectual seriousness, his Latin teacher was impressed enough by his talent at debate to declare him “one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known.”
At Yale more than one fellow-student saw fit to mention these extraordinary rhetorical and debating skills. To quote the Boston Globe, as a college debater he “won dozens of competitions against college students from across the nation and even across the Atlantic. In February 1966, Kerry and his partner, William Stanberry, Jr., won a match against a previously undefeated traveling team from Britain.” In fact his history professor and debate team coach, Rollin “Rollie” Osterweis, “frequently said before Kerry’s graduation that he was one of the greatest debaters ever to come from Yale.” He was, to no one’s surprise, voted the class orator and in that role spoke at graduation.
At BC Law, which he attended due to the influence of Father Drinan, whose first campaign he chaired, Kerry won The Grimes Moot Court Competition. On the BC Law web site, he recalls his time at BC Law thusly, “I learned what it means to apply critical thinking, to approach intellectual problems using the Socratic method, to try to come up with the answers for questions I’d never even thought to ask before … Once I honed the skill of critical thinking, I found that it could be applied in a lot of contexts.” Are these the words of an intellectual lightweight (or even light-heavy)? Is it any surprise that following law school, as a prosecutor, he is remembered by colleague J. William Codinha, as “probably the most natural trial lawyer on his feet I ever saw.”
In a recent “Atlantic Monthly” piece comparing the debating styles of Bush and Kerry, James
Fallows, while not at all dismissive of Bush, was clearly astonished at Kerry’s skills, marveling that “Kerry under pressure was engrossing in a way that reminded me of a climactic courtroom scene in a Scott Turow novel, in which a skillful prosecutor eventually traps an evasive witness. You could see him maneuvering, thinking, adjusting, attacking, applying both knowledge and logic, and generally coming out ahead. John Kerry’s formal speeches often seem to illustrate the main complaints about his style: that he is pompous-sounding and stiff. But these debates mainly make you think, This man knows a lot, he is fast, and he has an interesting mind.”
Fallows’ piece accords with the findings (reported, I believe, in the New York Times a couple of months ago) of an expert on political speech who looks at the sentence and paragraph structure in candidates’ unscripted remarks in order to gauge the level of complexity in their thought. On this expert’s scale, George Bush did not fare at all badly; he was capable of stringing together thoughts in a cogent manner using basic conjunctions (real or implied); he habitually recognized and communicated simple connections between ideas. Clinton, interestingly enough, also fell into this category, while Dukakis, for instance, scored lower – he spoke in loosely connected declarative sentences. Kerry, in contrast to these three, came out at the highest level; he regularly and subtly elucidated the causal links between thoughts and sustained complicated arguments.
While I have unearthed no testimony to Kerry’s reading tastes, a quick perusal of his letters from Vietnam, as excerpted in Douglas Brinkley’s book, “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War”, should convince you (and maybe even Mickey Kaus) that he is both well-read in a general sense and even has a bit of literary flair.
In sum, let’s not forget that all this debating success requires more than verbal dexterity; it entails the mastery of substantive material, the ability to research, organize and sift through sometimes arcane detail. In John Kerry’s case especially, I think we can safely dismiss the notion that these oratorical skills derive from mere glibness or charm. They obviously point to something beyond that; the presence of a healthy and energized brain.
Besides which, he’s a Red Sox fan. (Ed. – and that argues for his intelligence?????)
And Shayna Englin writes:
At the outset, a couple of confessions:
· I’m of the belief that is impossible to prove anyone’s intelligence, with the notable exceptions of giants in science. It is easy to make almost anyone look stupid. Indisputable evidence of intelligence is all but nonexistent.
· I’m also of the belief that intelligence only matters in context and in comparison – who cares if Kerry is smart if Bush isn’t, either? Those are our choices, and both can doubtless be judged lacking in comparison to easily spotted geniuses. Einstein, Hawking, yes, Moynihan – all would leave them both in the dust.
• I’m convinced that intelligence is in the eye of the beholder. Not a few people questioned the intelligence of even the late, great, Moynihan, particularly before his prescience on race and poverty became apparent.
My ambivalence about the exercise fairly confessed, I’ll address JFD’s arguments in reverse order.
KERRY’S SENATE ACHIEVEMENTS
Kerry has not held significant leadership positions – but he has been a well-recognized leader in the Senate’s investigative and oversight roles. Leadership positions are largely political- and fundraising- focused. A person who comes from a background as a prosecutor and a Lt. Governor, and comes in as the junior Senator to none other than Senator Kennedy, can have much more impact by not competing for committee assignments, but seeking leadership elsewhere.
Kerry chaired the POW-MIA Committee, and earned bipartisan respect for his efforts. He spent much of his first decade in the Senate leading the efforts to identify any living Vietnam MIA, and then to normalize relations with Vietnam. The results were controversial, as they were bound to be, but are well respected pretty much across the board.
In his first year as a Senator, Kerry uncovered the basis of what would become the Iran Contra scandal.
As chairman of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations, Kerry launched investigations into international drug rings.
It’s hard to find a good argument that, had Senate remained Democratic, Kerry would not have continued in this vein. Even as a minority Senator, with no political cache and a surplus of political vitriol directed his way, Kerry proposed visionary money-laundering regulations that, in retrospect, could have helped prevent al Qaeda from building their resources.
WHAT DO OTHER PEOPLE SAY ABOUT KERRY’S BRAIN?
Bill Clinton has been called many, many things. Stupid is not among them. Bill Clinton has repeatedly and over many years praised John Kerry’s leadership and intellect. The Senators who worked most closely with him for the longest tenure, Chuck Grassley and John McCain, are both effusive in the praise of his intellect (and leadership and honor, but I digress).
College grades don’t matter. The Kerry campaign should up and release the records – though, in fairness to at least this Kerry champion, I didn’t think college grades mattered in 1988 or 2000, either. Anti-intellectualism is a problem in a President; an intellectual who didn’t get good grades in college is not. Fixation on transcripts is ridiculous in almost every job interview context; it’s ridiculous here. And all of that said, even JFD’s massive influence in the world of politics shouldn’t be enough to cause the Kerry campaign to release the records – it wouldn’t be smart. They should wait until there’s some sort of public pressure and do it with fanfare. If they’re stellar; great. If they’re mediocre; fine. We’ve already determined that mediocre performance in college isn’t a disqualifier for the presidency.
But since JFD threw it out, I’ll bite.
Even though we don’t (yet) have Kerry’s transcripts, we do know quite a bit about what he did at Yale. We know that he was a champion on the debate team, and the debate coach at the time referred to him before and after his graduation as “one of the greatest debaters ever to come to Yale.” (If you’re a subscriber to the Atlantic Monthly, you can read all about it online. If not, buy the July/August edition). Stupid people don’t often excel at debate; I’d guess it would be particularly difficult to do so at Yale. His prowess stuck with him—William Weld is no dummy; Kerry won his only tough re-election race by squashing Weld in their debate.
JFD memorably argues that, as opposed to Bush’s partly merit-based admission to HBS, Kerry, even with his war record, media star status, and, yes, still-existing family connections, couldn’t even manage to get into Harvard Law School. Clearly, anyone who got into Harvard would go there, right?
Nope. In 1999 I was hours away from accepting a slot in Northeastern’s Public Policy program over a slot at Harvard’s Public Policy program because Northeastern offered me a full ride, plus a stipend. Harvard offered me nothing. A generous mother-in-law saved the day. I was this close to making myself vulnerable, thirty years from now, to some pseudonym-ed guy with a soap-box calling me stupid because anyone who got into Harvard would surely go there. (Ed.- Only if you ran for president.)
Kerry was not wealthy. His family was not wealthy.
Who knows what BC and HLS offered him? Connecting the dots requires some giant leaps – too giant to conclude from them alone that the man in question isn’t smart.
YEP: IN DEFENSE OF “COMPLEXITY”
It is, as JFD points out endlessly, a dangerous world. It’s also a complex one. For example, a full-blooded war on terror (by which we mean a war on terrorism, I hope – a war on “terror” seems pretty silly, and I’d miss the scary movies) would have to include some reckoning on Saudi Arabia. But a full-blooded American economy is dependent on OPEC oil. No amount of domestic drilling or alternative fuel investment is going to change that any time soon. Taking on the Saudi propensity for producing and supporting terrorists would put at risk another crucial aspect of American life. Any solution is imperfect, and yes, complex.
Similarly, taking America to war is, as it should be, a complex affair. “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it” is an inexplicably inelegant way of describing what happened with that supplemental spending bill. (Only veering a little bit from my lane, it’s hilarious to see Bush supporters bandy a verbal gaffe in the wake of, “They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.”) There were several bills, one of them championed by the President, the other championed by many Senate Democrats. It was, in fact, possible on this bill as on most others to have agreement at the outset but disagreement on the specifics as they got piled on. It was possible to, as the Senator points out, vote for it and vote against it. The pesky process makes it very, very difficult to avoid the complexity JFD finds so troublingly empty.
JFD is correct that a “complex mind” is difficult to identify or define – much like an “intelligent mind.” Recognition that a complex world calls for complex solutions, ability to put together complicated, disparate pieces of information to form successful investigations, and ability to articulate it all in at least one format is evidence of both.
Bring It On.
I first want to respond by offering my test for intelligence. Actually, before doing so, I would like to offer a special piece of praise for Shayna’s snarky sarcasm and faux-sycophancy. Well done, indeed. I think intelligence is defined by two primary skills:
1) Intellectual Rigor - Can you master difficult matters? For instance, if you found trig an unsolvable riddle and couldn’t see the beauty in Hamlet, you may not be a genius. There are a couple of guys I know, both Harvard professors, of whom the following can truthfully be said: There is nothing within the realm of human knowledge that they can’t comprehend if they put their minds to it. Being curious about complex matters is clearly distinct from achieving a mastery of them. Wondering about things is nice, but understanding them is even better.
2) Unusual or Exceptional Insights - Are you able to see things that others don’t? Do you come up with answers to previously insoluble problems? Isaac Newton did; so did Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Newt Gingrich and George Marshall.
Admittedly, measuring these things isn’t easy. That’s one of the reasons grades have some relevance. School is the one time in life where your ability to comprehend complex matters is actually objectively measured. Now of course, the relevance of grades is limited because a lot of people don’t apply themselves in school. But if John Kerry worked like a dervish and still did poorly at Yale or Boston College, such information would be probative.
One thing that is definitely not “intelligence” is verbal dexterity. Being highly articulate often has some correlation with one’s intellectual capacity, but the two should not be confused of conflated. How well did Einstein express himself? Completely and utterly irrelevant, right? I’ll tell ya, being articulate and wearing eyeglasses are the two easiest ways to fool people into believing you’re bright.
That being said, verbal expression is a key component of successful leadership. A president who can express himself well is likely to be a far more effective leader than one who cannot. Can Kerry express himself well? His Yale debate coach apparently thought so. But it appears that expressing yourself as a politician and expressing yourself as a super-stud college debater might require a different skill set.
So I don’t think much of the many tributes to Kerry’s past verbosity. I don’t think those skills have made it to the 21st century, but even if they did I don’t think they have a lot to do with this conversation.
So, using my definition for intellect, does it matter how Kerry and Bush rank? I think we’ve had three presidents who qualify well on both fronts: Jefferson, Nixon and Clinton. All three saw things that virtually no one around them did. (Clinton, you’re asking, right? Obviously had intellectual rigor in spades, but what did he ever figure out that wasn’t already common knowledge? He pioneered the sickening Oprah-ization of politics. That whole feel your pain thing. Playing the sax on Arsenio. He realized the rules had changed before anyone else.)
The fact that all three were deeply flawed individuals does not mean we should eschew highly intelligent presidents. But it does mean that perhaps the key to being a great leader isn’t found in the head but instead in the heart. Lincoln had the resolve to see through the Civil War; Truman had the guts to end WWII and start the Cold War. Reagan was able to call the Soviet Union what it truly was and fought to defeat it. These weren’t intellectual struggles – they were of a higher order.
And that’s going to lead us to the real problems with John Kerry.
(And with that, the subject is now changed, although both Shayna and Steve are welcome to write responses that I’ll post if they so wish. Thanks again, guys.)