Don't Be Too Smart

by Matt Soriano | 11/3/00 6:00am

It seems natural to college students to select their leaders based on the intelligence that they display. After all, we live in a world of tests and grades where the person who remembers the most or the person who interprets the most gets the grade. This seems to be the root of Vice President Gore's appeal. He got better grades at Harvard than the Governor of Texas did at Yale. He lived his life in government from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Senate, studying, analyzing and generally getting a better grip on the issues that face our world today. This man knows the best for America. He wrote big, thick policy books like "Earth in the Balance." Heck, he even knows why Governor Bush's tax cuts aren't a good idea. A person who knows more about his opponent's plans than his opponent has a natural right to be the president, right?

Wrong. It is my firm belief that at the presidential level, too much intelligence can get a president into trouble. The body of knowledge required to run the Executive Branch of the United States is too large to be handled by one man. What single person could understand the macroeconomic effects of a tax hike and simultaneously analyze the benefits and dangers of a ban on Bovine Growth Hormone? Moreover, the 24 hours in a day apply both to the president and his janitor -- were the president to focus on a single issue his time to consider the choices on other issues is cut. Scott Adams wrote in a Dilbert column several years back, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Electing a president on the presumption that he can handle more of the tasks that his subordinates ought to do is to further fall along that path towards presidential micromanagement. Our next president ought to select from the myriad of answers that are presented and, most importantly, take the responsibility for what is ultimately accomplished or not accomplished. Discretion, rather than knowledge, ought to be the president's job.

So how does the president achieve this sublime state of perfect discretion? Well, he ought to surround himself with the smartest people possible. Moreover, he ought to encourage them to act and speak with autonomy, trusting in their abilities to manage the Interior, the Diplomatic Service and Defense. A President ought not to be meddling in the operational matters of police actions in Indochina. But the president must not fall into the Reagan trap of isolating himself from the actions of his subordinates. He ought to understand what they are doing and stop it when it goes wrong or illegal. A president ought not just to have discretion but a bit of common sense. He ought to know when his advisers are selling missiles to Iran in order to get money without Congress to support a vicious rebellion in a banana republic. He ought to know that the Congress ought to know when you send troops to war. Too much autonomy is as bad as too little autonomy.

Perfect discretion comes also through an apolitical and transparent decision-making apparatus. He and his advisors ought to have a religious respect for the truth. At the presidential level, self-delusion or ego stroking (i.e., Westmoreland's "light at the end of the tunnel" statement previous to the Tet Offensive) is terribly dangerous. Even more dangerous is letting political maneuvering affect the autonomy of the office. The president should make correct choices regardless of whether he is currently under impeachment or in need of support from the House or in need of campaign contributions. There ought to be no authorizing of $2 billion helicopter carriers coincidentally named Trent Lott. There ought to be no decisions of sending carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Straits based on campaign contributions from Taiwanese businessmen afraid of war. A president's duty is to all of the citizens of the United States. He must act according to the best information possible rather than the slanted views presented by his own fawning advisors.

When you get down to the bottom of this respect for presidential knowledge, it is voter trust that the president is the root of all things. The president can be Secretary of Defense, Protector of the Environment and engage in a War on Drugs, according to campaign commercials. This simply isn't the truth. The root of all that is accomplished is people. Soldiers, scientists and federal agents are the heart of this government. We need a president that understands people rather than issues. We need a president who understands that his duty is to manage and not to execute. We need a president whose management system is devoid of politics and devoid of special interest groups that tinge the Oval Office with self-delusion. We can't have a president who is elected on what he will do for us because if he has a flawed system of coming to do these things then nothing will come of all the best choices and plans in the world.

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