Is Sarah Palin smart enough to be president?
Good question. Are you? Come on now — no false modesty. No quips about being smart enough not to run for president, or any other dodges. The question is do you think you are smart enough to be CEO of the United States of America, and to, as the presidential oath puts it, “faithfully execute the office of president of the United States, and … to the best of [your] ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States?” That’s a pretty simple and straight- forward job description — think you’re smart enough to handle it? Or put the question another way: Do you think you’re too dumb to be president? Again, no false modesty. Fess up. If it’s any comfort, I think it’s a good bet that you are smart enough to be president. This isn’t because you’re so damned smart; it’s because being president of the United States, although it requires some extraordinary personal attributes, doesn’t demand extraordinary intelligence and erudition.
The truth is that when it comes to running the United States, you don’t have to be much above average in terms of smarts. The genius of the Constitution is that it created a government that doesn’t require a genius to run it. Academic credentialing, which supposedly says something about a person’s smarts, hasn’t been much of a predictor of success when it comes to the presidency.
While it is true that most American presidents have had university degrees, the two greatest — Washington and Lincoln — did not.
Washington was home-schooled; his hopes for a formal education in England ended with his father’s death in 1743 when he was 11. (He eventually earned a Surveyor’s Certificate from the College of William and Mary.)
Lincoln had about 18 months of formal schooling. His legal education consisted of reading law books after he was elected to the Illinois legislature.
You would have to be pretty dumb to argue that the lack of formal education, never mind college degrees, rendered either Washington or Lincoln unfit for the presidency.
Between 1789 and 1869, seven of the first 17 U.S. presidents didn’t have college degrees. (Washington, Jackson, Van Buren, Taylor, Fillmore, Lincoln and Andrew Johnson.)
From 1869 to the present, only two presidents lacked college degrees — Grover Cleveland and Harry Truman. History’s judgment of both has been “better than average.”
If you are going to run the United States, it certainly helps to be intelligent and reasonably well educated, but there are more important qualities to have.
What might those be? Well, that’s a question that a senior colloquium in American government could argue about all semester. However, my personal answer comes not from political science, but from poetry. It’s the list of character traits in Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.” Here are some of them, cast as questions to a potential candidate and semi-delyriced (if that’s a word) to keep the poetry from distracting from the content:
Can you keep your head in a crisis when all your advisers and political allies are panicking and blaming you? (It’s something that can be a big plus when your finger is on the nuclear trigger.)
Can you trust yourself when everyone doubts you, but make allowance for their doubting, too? (Like Bush, ordering the surge in Iraq.)
Can you dream — and not make dreams your master? Can you think — and not make thoughts your aim? ( JFK and Theodore Roosevelt could.)
Can you talk with crowds and keep your virtue? (Obama may have a problem here.)
Can you walk with kings and not lose the common touch? (Reagan could and did.)
Can you wait and not be tired by waiting? (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, and Reagan could. That’s why we won the Cold War.)
Do you have the inner strength and tenacity to keep going after you have nothing left in the tank physically, intellectually or emotionally except the will that says to you, “Hold on.” (Think Lincoln in 1864. Think Ulysses S. Grant’s entire life.)
Do all men count with you, but none too much? (The prime directive for any democratically elected political leader is to do the greatest good for the greatest number. In order to do that, all men must count with you, but none too much.)
And so on. These “presidential” qualities are expressions of morality, integrity, character, even wisdom, but not necessarily of smarts.
So to return to the original question: Is Sarah Palin smart enough to be President? Yes, she is, and so are you.
But the real question is does Sarah Palin have what it takes to be president? It’s too soon to say, but I think if measured against the Kipling standard, she would stack up pretty well — probably better than a lot of those who have occupied the Oval Office.