“We [American voters] love the clever sally and loathe the boring truth.”
– George Friedman, “On Presidential Debates”, Oct. 1, 2020 “Geopolitical Futures”.
The first presidential debates took place between Vice-President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy in 1960. Kennedy lied by stating there was a large missile gap between the Soviet Union and the U.S.; we were behind. Kennedy knew it was a lie but he said it anyway to score political points and to be clever. He won the night. As Friedman noted in his article: “A clever falsehood can sweep the table in a sentence. The explanation of why the statement is untrue requires a great deal of time.”
Richard Nixon simply did not have the time in the debate to explain why Kennedy’s lie was untrue. Kennedy won, for that and other reasons.
Being clever requires a quick mind, while being smart requires a great deal more thinking and reflection. The question you, the voters, need to ask yourself is whether you want a clever president or a smart president.
Serving on the Enumclaw City Council for four years taught me that government issues are complex. It took me nearly half of that to begin to get a handle on the information I needed to make good decisions. And that was small town government. Being a national leader, especially being president, is like trying to drink water from a fire hose, as Barack Obama noted in his second book. The amount of information needed to properly do the job is overwhelming.
Because of his convoluted speaking style, Dwight D. Eisenhower was accused of not being very smart, and some even hinted that he was senile. Yet Eisenhower was the general who masterminded the D-Day invasion, was the first commander of NATO, and had negotiated the end of the Korean Conflict. Eisenhower did not have to suffer in a debate with his opponent in his campaigns for president. It seems clear he would have come across as neither smart nor clever.
The media likes clever politicians because they encapsulate ideas into soundbytes, easy to understand by the public. But that does not necessarily mean the president can make good, well-thought-out decisions.
Being smart requires time and is a skill that is not easily mastered. It requires anticipating possible outcomes and thinking through those potential outcomes to plan in a way that deals with the consequences.
In the past, before the debate last week, “Candidates were expected to comport themselves appropriately. The public can rant, but smart candidates let others do the ranting for them”, according to Friedman. That didn’t happen last week. President Trump started a rant within the first 10-15 seconds and never stopped during the whole debate.
As Friedman notes, “Thinking deep means recognizing that the issues are all complex and therefore being able to give simplistic responses to questions that are unanswerable in the time allowed. No issue to be faced by a president could responsibly be addressed in an hour. A candidate might have thought deeply on race, but precisely because he had thought deeply he would be aware of the difficulty and danger of trying to express what he has thought in two sentences.”
When a smart candidate has to take on a clever person in a time-limited debate, the smart person will always lose. There are a few who can be both smart and clever. Franklin Roosevelt was one of those few who could do both. His fireside chats were clever. FDR had the ability to clearly express complex concepts in words. He also could think deeply as seen by how he prepared for U.S. entry into World War II although many Americans were clinging to isolationism, hoping to avoid an unavoidable war. Roosevelt had an advantage, though. He didn’t have to stand next to a clever person. He commanded the stage.
Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan was clever. It gave a vision that many older, white working-class Americans could relate to and resonate with. But has Trump been smart? Is he someone who thinks things through? The obvious answer is no.
Joe Biden comes across as slow and boring—Trump calls him “Sleepy Joe”. But Biden has the depth of experience of 47 years in government. You don’t survive in politics that long without being smart. Politics and public service are very stressful. Biden may be at times inarticulate, but that doesn’t mean he’s unfitted for the job of president.
We’ve had four years of clever and that has brought chaos and division. I’m looking forward to the next four years of smart and boring.