The intellectual habits of a good leader for the United States are hard to describe. What are the similarities between successful chief executives such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Ronald Reagan?

It is important to remember that the United States is not a business. The skills needed in a good chief executive officer are not always those of a good President of the United States. The divided nature of American government means that while the president has many powers, he cannot always get his way. A successful president works well with Congress and can persuade the American people his course is the right one. Sometimes “deciders” act too quickly and history ends up judging their decisions harshly.

George W. Bush failed to keep a majority of Americans on board with his program and this hurt his presidency. He could decide, but failed to persuade.

Of course the presidency is also not a university professorship. Smart guys like Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Jimmy Carter turned out to be ill-suited for the White House. There is often not time in a presidency to study and restudy a problem. There is nothing wrong with having a nuanced view on an issue, but that nuance often does not translate into the real world.

In a republic, being “right” is no protection from being on the wrong side of popular opinion. Refusing to take what one can get out of high-mindedness can utterly destroy a cause. Woodrow Wilson would not compromise of the peace treaty to end World War I, but his opinions (whatever their merits) were out of touch with the mood of the public. As a result, he lost more than he needed to lose and this total defeat hurt his presidency and the peace.

Sometimes nuance just sounds like weakness. As a product of the system designed to build university professors, President Obama risks dithering when he should be deciding. In a war being there “firstest with the mostest” is often more important than making exactly the right decision.

A good president is not obsessed with detail at the expense of the big picture. A president cannot master all the details needed to make rational decisions about the issues that cross his desk. He will need a well thought out political philosophy and experts he trusts in order to make good calls. As a result, he need not be a philosopher, Reagan certainly was not, but the president needs a carefully worked out governing philosophy that can guide his decision making. A good president also needs the ability to attract the loyalty of details people, the famed policy wonks, to help frame the issue.

A good president does not ignore detail and can change his mind in changing conditions. Lincoln and Reagan both had to jettison advisers and generals under changing circumstances. If Lincoln had not been political sensitive to his conduct, he would not have won reelection and the Union would have been lost. He was able to see when a strategy had failed and change.

Lincoln knew the “big picture” philosophically was to save the Union. He let nothing distract him from this mission, including his own pet methods of achieving this goal. Reagan would raise taxes if he had to do so, but it was always with the goal of defeating global statism in the form of aggressive communism or to make the political compromises needed to be in a position to fight for smaller government later.

He did what he had to do.

A good president can make decisions in a crisis. A James Buchanan tries to wait out his time and does nothing. A Harry Truman acts and saves Greece from a communist revolution.

A good president understands the complex, but can explain it to the rest of us. We no more want our president to be “like we are” intellectually than we want our heart surgeon to be like we are medically. We hope he has deep and sophisticated knowledge of the political system and of a philosophy of governance. As voters we are picking our representative in Washington and our hope is that he will represent our views better than we could.

We want someone better at the job than we would be, but who can explain to us what he is doing.

There are two kinds of bad leader: a bad leader who wonks out on everything and a bad leader who cannot wonk out on anything. The first is a tragic failure of the virtue of prudence and the second of either intellect or diligence.

Given this, a sound conservative has reasons to worry about Sarah Palin. The role of a vice-presidential candidate is a weird one and so it was hard to get a read on her actual style and philosophy. However, the campaign raised legitimate concerns amongst her friends and supporters about whether she had the intellectual habits needed in a successful chief executive.

It is true that she lacks the intellectual vices of a Jimmy Carter (or a Barack Obama), but she appears to lack many of the corresponding intellectual virtues. Those of us who see her as promising, who agree with her views, and want to support her have had increasing cause for concern.

We don’t want a philosopher-queen, but we do want an intellectually curious, disciplined, and stable person. Her well-wishers, and I am certainly a well wisher, cannot delude themselves or allow extremism amongst her detractors to hide the truth. There is an accumulating case from her abilities in interviews to her debate performance that Palin is not as intellectually nimble as she needs to be.

During the campaign, I believed her performance as chief executive in Wasilla and Alaska put the burden of proof on her critics. I also believed that the role of surrogate for McCain hid much of her personality (as it does for all vice-presidential candidates) and forced her into the weird intellectual position of defending someone else’s views.

One job of any conservative candidate is to neutralize hostile media, as Reagan did, and she failed at this job. This could be put down to inexperience or to the strain of supporting John McCain’s ideas and not her own, but it is still a cause for reasonable concern.

Of course, the reason to think hard about Palin are her obvious political and executive gifts. She is so charismatic and so gifted in many ways that many of us long to see in her the necessary intellectual skills. We are not looking for a professor, pundit, or sage, but we do want to know that our candidate has mastered the necessary detail (Shiite or Sunni?) to govern well.

Joe Biden is a perfect example of person who almost certainly does not pass the test of intellectual temperament for the presidency. He is frequently clownish in his answers and though endurance in the Senate has given him a good working knowledge of many issue (how could it not?) nobody is going to confuse Biden with a thinker.

Biden was a horrible vice-presidential choice who added nothing to the ticket. If you are conservative, then I am sure you agree or are tempted to do so!

This should illustrate the Palin problem perfectly.

Was any conservative confident before the Palin-Biden debate? Reasonable conservatives were worried about her performance and this was against Joe Biden. I thought she did well in the debate as a surrogate for McCain . . . but it was by design not the kind of strategy that would allay concerns about intellectual temperament.

She repeated talking points and worked hard to come across as folksy. This was a fine strategy, I get that, but it left any reasonable person still wondering. Is that all there is? Is there more?

We hoped so, but since the election the biggest piece of evidence we have been given is the Palin book. She worked hard on it (one assumes) and was paid a great deal to write it. She had help, a lot of help, writing it.

But she did not even carefully fact check it . . .

Imagine being in her position. You know your foes will make hay out of the slightest error. You know people think you are dumb (and Palin is not dumb) and this book is your chance to change your minds. You care enough to include Plato and Aristotle quotations to try to persuade minds, but then you don’t go beyond Google in researching your own book.

The reason I harp on these error is that they are unarguably errors and have nothing to do with anybody’s political agenda. They are also the kind of error that Governor Palin must know play into the negative stereotypes about her.

This carelessness adds to any reasonable persons fears. At some point defending Palin against the evidence is irrational and comes close to “fandom.” Now I am a Sarah fan, what pro-life person is not? I am a fan of Billy Graham, but I don’t think even the young Billy should ever have been president.

Being president requires more than just being right and being a swell person. Let me sum up what I think we should be looking for intellectually in any candidate. I will limit myself to five qualities, because these are the five that seem unarguably important in the leader of the free world.

I am sure there are more.

First, a good leader can learn from experience and text.

Palin reads books, but I have yet to see evidence that books do more than reinforce her views. At the presidential level, decisions are too complex to rely only on personal experience.

Second, a good leader will have intellectual curiosity.

Where is the evidence of this vital trait in Sarah Palin? Her hobbies are all non-intellectual so far as I can tell. What ideas motivate her to read and re-read? What books has she read more than once?

I still don’t know and I like Palin!

Third, a good leader will change her mind and adapt to circumstances.

I see strong evidence of this trait, but absent other intellectual characteristics one wonders if this is merely self-serving.

We are all tempted to do what pleases us or to get attention. Intellectual change must be against the grain and difficult. What issue has been like that for Palin?

Fourth, a good leader will have a strong base of relevant general knowledge.

I thought this attack on Palin unfair during the campaign given the limits imposed on a vice-presidential candidate. But when in a free-wheeling and unstructured environment containing hostile or unfriendly questions, I have seen too little evidence that Palin has the discipline or the background knowledge needed.

By now any good candidate for president should have, for example, a working knowledge of Islam. He or she should have read the Koran (in translation). You might not do this, but don’t you hope your presidential candidate has? It would keep him or her from making important mistakes!

Finally, a good leader attracts smarter people to her cause.

The biggest worry I have with Palin is that I don’t see a brain trust coming around her. Reagan had some intellectual weaknesses, but he was the master of surrounding himself with brilliant people and getting good service from them. Some, like Judge Clark, served him for a lifetime.

Shouldn’t we worry about a candidate who cannot attract the loyalty of those better at certain things than she is? Are they all RINO’s?

Conservatives of all people should be wary of the cult of personality or of figures who do not work with or hire those who can hold them intellectually accountable. Whatever you want to say about Ronald Reagan, he easily passed this test.

Since I earnestly desire to see good in Sarah Palin, can any of her fans of this blog tell me one intellectual who has been attracted to and worked for this middle-aged woman over the last four to five years? Surely, there should be one.

Perhaps Palin possess these qualities, but there is too little evidence of it at present to support her candidacy for the highest political office in the United States at this time. Her book was a failure as an attempt to answer these legitimate concerns. Of course, she has many other chances to show these skills, but I don’t think we can go on ignoring these worries.

Much as a voters might like Palin on the issues and her obvious political skills, a reasonable voter will have to pass on her candidacy until he gets further evidence that she does posses the intellectual skills need to be president.

Addition:

I was asked by another Palin fan: “what could the Governor do to satisfy you?” (Not a direct quotation!) I think the implication was that I am such a pointy-headed intellectual, that there would be no meeting my demands if Governor Palin did not take two year off and graduate from Torrey Honors.

Well, the Governor certainly need not go that far!

Just for my own sake, here is a five step plan for Governor Palin:

1. write a weekly column (one thousand words) without a ghost on her new media site wrestling with a political idea over the course of a month. That would give us 4,000 words of straight Palin without a filter. Done well this would be enough verbiage to show us she her philosophy/worldview on a particular topic.

2. Get a brain trust of academics who work with Governor Palin and can “tell her where to get off.” Find people like J.P. Moreland to suggest books and challenge bad ideas. Listen to those people. Bounce columns off a Frank Beckwith or a Robbie George. Listen, listen, listen. Don’t get new people if you can avoid it. Make relationships that will stand tough times. Find people who respect the Governor, but that she will respect.

3. Start work on a sequel that will be all vision and policy proposals. A ghost is fine by modern standards by only for “smoothing” and “editing.” Give a series of speeches in key states as each chapter develops. Listen to criticism and modify the chapter.

4. Find two or three places to go beyond (not abandon) 1980’s Republican orthodoxy. There is no Soviet Union and times have changed.

5. Go on a reading bender and don’t tell us about it. It will come out in speeches. Read a book (not the web or blogs) for as long as the Governor spends running. Make sure this time is quiet and not interrupted.

Governor Palin certainly has no reason to know I exist! This is just what I would do advise a former student to do in her position. Let me repeat: Palin is a rare talent and can command the best of conservative scholars (certainly not me!) to aid her. This would not detract from her as leader, but like David show that she can command the support of intellectually mighty men and women.

I hope the Governor can find her “men of Issachar.”

These are my concluding thoughts for this Holiday on Governor Palin!

More on: Politics

Articles by John Mark Reynolds

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