The discussion of whether or not Mr Obama is “smart” came up again in a conversation. I thought I’d lay out a few thoughts on that. Before I begin I want to emphasize that I don’t know whether or not he is smart or not. People say he is … and I think they have no real good way of knowing that. The reason I say I don’t know is that I don’t have the background or experience to judge whether or not largely because I really have no instincts or experience of lawyers who are or are not considered, in their field, smart. 

First of, let’s set some groundwork. When people are talking about Mr Obama being smart, what they are not talking about is that he is in the upper 50 percentile of intelligence in the US. Or at the very least that’s certainly not what I understand the term to mean. Some people who offer that Mr Obama is smart, point to academic credentials … attending Columbia, Harvard law, Harvard Law review chair and so on. Yet they also contend without torquing their brains with dissonance that Mr Bush (Yale, Harvard MBA, F-104 fighter pilot) is not. Now, I’ve attended the “Harvard of the Mid-West” (U of Chicago) and in my field there were fellow students who I felt at the time were not, well, very sharp. So mere attendance at a good school does not qualify one automatically as either smart or dumb. Regarding the Law review, I have no idea how one serves on that editorial board or chairs it … but it seems more akin to winning an election to class President than anything writing a brilliant paper or giving a talk like that noted in the next chapter. 

20+ years ago, when I was in graduate school I attended a lecture at the U of Chicago Maths department by Edward Witten. Mr Witten is considered, almost universally, in the Physics (and mathematical Physics community) to be if not the very brightest then on the very short list of the brightest theoretical Physicists alive today. Now, I as a grad student was blown away by his talk … but the interesting thing was that my reading of the reaction by the math department reaction was that they had just witnessed a historic lecture, of the category of Riemann’s famous habilitation (Doctoral defense) lecture in which geometry was completely re-written as a theory of manifolds. This is what I mean by “recognizing” smart. Now Mr Witten is a special (easy) case, for he is on the upper/outer boundary. But the point of this little recollection is to offer that in Maths, Physics, and (as I noted in our conversation) in computer programming I feel qualified to judge “smart.” Now a person who does not know any higher mathematics, when they see a paper or talk by Mr Witten really has no way of judging whether he is smart or just confidently talking nonsensical jargon. In the same manner, I feel no expertise to judge whether a lawyer “doing his thing” is smart or just confidently spouting jargon. But the point is, in the Physics or Maths community there is a sense of who the “smart” people are and people within the field can judge that from their scholarly work. I would expect that much the same is true in the Constitutional law. 

So, when someone opines that Mr Obama is “smart” what that means for me is not that he is in the 60th IQ percentile in the US or some such twaddle (for then the Mr Bush/Ms Palin is dumb argument fails as well),  but that he, who was trained as a Constitutional lawyer, is or was regarded as one of the best and brightest in that field. Was he. I don’t think  that’s the case. Do I think he is smart. I don’t know, but I suspect …. that he is not or that he is now and has always been contending in a field (Politics) where such assessments are really quite meaningless.

Filed under: Mark O.Politics

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