The Know-'Em-All

How President Bush is smarter than the intellectuals who disdain him.

By Michael Segal
Feb. 4, 2004 12:01 am ET

Many people look back on their college years and regret how much they missed of the great intellectual resources of the university. Not me. My regrets are about failing to meet more of the remarkable people who were my fellow undergraduates at Harvard and nearby MIT. I thought of such socializing as mere fun, which came after coursework. As a result, there were a lot of interesting students I never got to meet, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Benazir Bhutto, from Bill Gates to Scott McNealy, even though some of these people knew friends of mine. But my regrets are more wistful than realistic, since no one knew everyone in college.

Except George W. Bush. His Yale classmates claim that he knew everyone in their undergraduate class, and one can almost believe this was literally true. Classmate Clay Johnson recalled the time when he and George Bush were freshman pledges for the DKE fraternity. Upperclassmen were berating them as "the sorriest bunch of pledges that they had ever heard of," Mr. Johnson told PBS's "Frontline" in 2000:
Normally most pledge classes are very tight and very supportive of one another, and we were 50 individuals and were not interested in each other and there was no unity in our class. And they said it was really quite deplorable.
To make this point to us, they started calling on people to get up and name their fellow pledge members. And they called the first person, and he named four or five. And then he didn't know anybody else's name, and they told him what a sorry human being he was and how little he cared about his pledges. Then they called on somebody else and he named eight or ten but didn't know anybody else.
Anyway, the third or fourth person they called on was George. He got up and named all 50. There was this hush that fell over the room.

Mr. Bush went on to become the president of the fraternity. He didn't know just the names--classmates marvel about how he could sum up each person's essence with great insight and humor.

When intellectuals tell me how much they hate President Bush and how stupid they think he is, I know that he excelled at the crucial form of learning whose importance I didn't fully appreciate when I was in college. It sank in only years later as I watched people in business do wonders by drawing on their personal relationships, much as scientists do wonders by marshaling knowledge that is more abstract. This focus on personal relationships may be the key to the president's success--and to why so many intellectuals disdain him.

When Mr. Bush ran against John McCain in 2000 presidential primaries, the Arizona senator was quick on his feet and had a good answer for every question. The Texas governor, on the other hand, had a great team. Mr. McCain was the know-it-all; Mr. Bush was the know-'em-all. Both sets of skills are important, but the presidency is a job in which you can't know everything about every issue or make things happen just by yourself. Being a good judge of people and having a great team is of huge importance.

To a typical intellectual, how much you know is far more important than knowing whom you can trust and count on. This is why Mr. Bush is so infuriating to intellectuals. He makes no pretense that he has all the answers, and he talks like a regular guy--but the team he leads is reshaping the Middle East with a brashness and vision equal to that of his Reaganite predecessors, as well as making major changes in domestic policy.

Polls show that most Americans admire Mr. Bush's personal qualities, but to intellectuals he doesn't show the personal quality they most admire. Thus to them Mr. Bush's successes seems undeserved, attributable to others. Although the president's IQ is estimated (based on SAT scores) as greater than that of 90% of Americans, he is portrayed as the puppet of smarter men.

It's hard to budge stereotypes, but Mr. Bush could use his talents at personal relationships to reassure intellectuals, emulating some of his predecessors. John F. Kennedy made a big show of inviting intellectuals to the White House, and President Clinton had widely publicized policy sessions with thought leaders while president-elect. These actions were crucial to cementing their reputations for wisdom. President Bush, through a series of lunches with a wide variety of thought leaders at the White House, could get across the message that being a know-'em-all is a great way to pool the wisdom of the community and channel it into wise policy. And I bet he'd have a lot of fun doing it.

Dr. Segal is a neurologist and neuroscientist.

Appeared on Wall Street Journal "Opinion Journal" web site.

Copyright ©2004 Michael Segal