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Rick Perry's Brainpower Questioned; How Smart Should A President Be?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, with wife Anita, gestures as he answers a question at a news conference in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Aug. 29, 2011.
Sue Ogrocki
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, with wife Anita, gestures as he answers a question at a news conference in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Aug. 29, 2011.

The Politico headline was definitely eye-catching: "Is Rick Perry Dumb?"

Twelve years ago if Politico had been around then, it might have asked the same question about another Texas governor who went on to become president, George W. Bush.

And that, of course, is one of the uncanny things about Perry's ascendancy to frontrunner among Republicans vying to become their party's presidential nominee.

Not only do we have another Texas Republican governor who works the I'm-one-tough-hombre persona pretty hard but who strikes many observers as not being all that curious about the world outside his own small little part of it and doesn't seem to care how much he shows that.

Through his reporting for his Politico story, Jonathan Martin appears to conclude that that Perry has an obvious aptitude for getting and keeping power even though his lack of curiosity may place some serious constraints on what informs his use of that same power.

An excerpt:

Doubts about Perry's intellect have hounded him since he was first elected as a state legislator nearly three decades ago. In Austin, he's been derided as a right-place, right-time pol who looks the part but isn't so deep — "Gov. Goodhair." Now, with the chatter picking back up among his enemies and taking flight in elite Republican circles, the rap threatens to follow him to the national stage.

"He's like Bush only without the brains," cracked one former Republican governor who knows Perry, repeating a joke that has made the rounds...

The story goes on to say that Perry doesn't learn for knowledge's sake. His approach to learning is apparently more like the just-in-time delivery approach in manufacturing. If he needs to know something, he learns it. Otherwise, why bother?

A quote in the story that seems to neatly describe Perry is this one:

Dave McNeely, a Texas political columnist who has covered Austin since 1963, differentiated between Perry's skill set.

"In terms of sheer brains and understanding policy at a deep level, he'd rank pretty low," said McNeely, looking back at the chief executives he's covered from John Connally on. "But as far as power politics and control, he's the most powerful Texas governor in history."

If Perry is able to fend off the attacks sure to come his way as the GOP frontrunner from Mitt Romney and other Republican nominees and wins the nomination, it would obviously set up one of the greatest contrasts bewteen presidential candidates in American history.

On one side, there'd be President Obama, the cerebral and cool intellect who once held one of the most prestigious positions accorded to any American law student, Harvard Law editor, who actually wrote two best-selling books himself and who wears his Christian faith lightly.

On the other would be Perry, the indifferent Texas A&M grad who questions science and apparently had plenty of help writing his book "Fed Up", who evidently even sees Bush, his immediate predecessor as Texas governor, as something of an Ivy League elitist, and who recently held an Christian evangelical rally.

And that's before you even get to the two mens' different racial histories.

Obama is clearly the anti-Perry; Perry unquestionably the anti-Obama.

Getting back to the whole issue of Perry's brainpower, it seems self-evident why a president of the U.S. would need to be smart, especially at this historic juncture.

As presidents are fond of saying, only the toughest issues reach their desk. The ones with easy solutions get solved lower down in the bureaucracy and never reach the Oval Office.

So it seems a president needs the ability to understand the complexity of the problem he, or one day she, is facing and be able to ask the right questions to reach the best possible answer.

Along those lines, a president needs to be smart enough to know what he doesn't know and to figure out who can get him the best answer.

And there's a lot that's difficult to know at a time when the global economy is more complex than ever, nuclear weapons are in the hands of unstable nations and the Earth is warming.

Indeed, America seems to be at an inflection point where if it doesn't get its policies right, it may remain a superpower but a rapidly declining one.

A president also needs to be able to synthesize a lot of disparate and confusing information into a coherent picture that he can then communicate to the American people. It takes intelligence to do that.

Because a president deals with many different domestic constituencies often unlike those from a president's own background, it seems obvious a president would need to have the sort of curiosity that leads to some understanding of people of widely divergent cultures. That's even more true on the foreign policy.

If part of intelligence as defined broadly is the ability to project yourself into the shoes of other people with completely different life stories, to empathize with such people, then presidents need that, too.

Obviously, there's the necessary aptitude for leadership, for rallying people to a cause and for inspiring confidence. A president must have that kind of intelligence, too.

These are arguments for a president being intelligent. There are certainly others.

Surely, people have become president who lacked a reputation for intelligence. After Abraham Lincoln, one of the smartest presidents, came Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who strikes many historians as one of the most intellectually challenged.

Johnson, who numerous historians believe was drunk at his inauguration, is probably not the best argument for why intelligence shouldn't matter so much in a president. Ironically, it was Lincoln, a smart president, who chose Johnson as his running mate which demonstrates the limits of presidential intelligence.

On the other hand, Ronald Reagan proved to be a something of political genius, despite having once been called an "amiable dunce" by an old Washington graybeard, Clark Clifford.

So you clearly don't have to be a great intellect to be a transformational American president. But if intelligence is a good thing in airline pilots, Army generals or heart surgeons, it makes sense that it would be desirable in a president, too.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.