Is George W. Bush smart?

The Week
George W. Bush, with Presidents Obama and Clinton, at the opening of his presidential library on Thursday.

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George W. Bush, with Presidents Obama and Clinton, at the opening of his presidential library on Thursday.

A former aide says the widespread notion that Bush is dumb is an unfair caricature

Former President George W. Bush was never known as a particularly brainy commander in chief. His frequent verbal missteps became a defining aspect of his presidency, and "Bushisms" — meaning, politely, a malapropism coined by the president — spawned numerous books and countless "Best of" lists.

But what if Bush, for all his outward appearances, is actually quite smart?

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On Wednesday, Keith Hennessey, a former Bush economics aide, posted a long column called "George W. Bush is smarter than you," defending his old boss. Hennessey claims that, contrary to popular belief, Bush was deeply involved in White House decision-making and often wowed his advisers with his knowledge. Hennessey claims that a biased media painted him, unfairly, as a buffoon.

Here's Hennessey:

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. [Keith Hennessey]

The argument that Bush is much smarter in private has caught on elsewhere — or at least that the press created the impression that Bush isn't the brightest crayon in the box.

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#MSM created the perception that W was a dunce RT @caintv: Keith Hennessey: George W. Bush is smarter than you

— Herman Cain (@THEHermanCain) April 25, 2013

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, without going so far as to say that Bush is a genius, concedes that he's probably "pretty smart." You have to have some brains to become president, he argues, and Bush's perceived failings are more the result of misguided policy than sheer stupidity.

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To see Bush's failures — or Wall Street's failures — as a failure of insufficient intelligence is comforting, but very wrong. These are stories about how smart people can lead themselves and others down the wrong paths. To a large degree, they wouldn't be able to do it if they weren't smart, but that just proves that not all mistakes are dumb, and that being smart isn't the same thing as being wise, right, or capable. [Washington Post]

Given Bush's less than stellar legacy — historians have ranked him as one of the worst presidents ever — there are, unsurprisingly, some who have a far less rosy image of his mental faculties. New York's Jonathan Chait, in an exhaustive takedown of Bush defenders, says that while the mockery of Bush's poor speaking skills did go too far, the former president's inability to articulate his policies "bore all the hallmarks of a highly simplistic mind."

"I see only evidence of a man who not only lacks the ability to think analytically but disdains the very notion of it," he adds.

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Others have focused more on the specific points Hennessey uses to reach his ultimate pronouncement on Bush's intelligence. Mother Jones' Kevin Drum — while noting that he believes Bush is "reasonably smart" — picked apart Hennessey's individual arguments, saying they were indicative not of intelligence, but of other personality traits.

None of this suggests that Bush is a dumb guy. But it doesn't demonstrate a ton of analytical depth either. It suggests that (a) he has a good memory, (b) he's perfectly able to understand policy arguments when he wants to, but (c) most of the time he had little patience for this stuff and instead simply wanted to do what his political instincts told him to do. [Mother Jones]

Slate's Matthew Yglesias offered a similar take, saying the defense highlighted a debate not about whether Bush is smart, but about what he chose to prioritize while in office and why.

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My impression is that Obama was less personally involved with day-to-day conduct of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 than Bush was in 2008, and that Obama was more personally involved in the day-to-day of the financial crisis response in 2009 than Bush was in 2008. But my impression might be wrong. The fact is, I don't know. One way or another this isn't a question of intellect, it's a question of schedule management. [Slate]

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