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Analysis: How smart is Bush?

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Published: Jan. 14, 2004 at 1:55 PM
By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- By disdainfully describing George W. Bush's behavior during Cabinet meetings as that of a "blind man in a roomful of deaf people," former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has reopened the debate over just how smart the president is. Some objective numbers from Bush's past suggest he is reasonably but not exceptionally intelligent, but questions remain about his curiosity and openness to learning.

The New Yorker magazine revealed in 1999 that Bush scored 1206 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test: 566 Verbal, 640 Math. While there is something crass about focusing upon a future president's exam scores, these numbers possess a blunt honesty lacking in much of the carefully contrived folklore about politicians' brains.

Bush's 1206 is a better score than it may seem to younger people because the Educational Testing Service "recentered" (inflated) SAT scoring in the mid-'90s. Bush's score is the equivalent of a 1280 under today's dumbed-down scoring system.

How does that 1206 compare to the general population? The contrast is a little tricky because students who are clearly not college material generally don't take the SAT.

Linda Gottfredson, co-director of the University of Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society, told United Press International: "I recently converted Bush's SAT score to an IQ using the high school norms available for his age cohort. Educational Testing Service happened to have done a study of representative high school students within a year or so of when he took the test. I derived an IQ of 125, which is the 95th percentile." In other words, only one out of 20 people would score higher.

Another IQ expert, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, the co-author of the bestseller "The Bell Curve," came up with a similar result when asked by UPI. Noting that everybody except high school dropouts takes the PSAT when they are sophomores, Murray calculated from PSAT scores that "I think you're safe in saying that Dubya's IQ, based on his SAT score, is in excess of 120, which puts him the top 10 percent of the distribution, but I wouldn't try to be more precise than that."

By way of comparison, Bush's 2000 opponent Al Gore scored 134 and 133 the two times he took an IQ test in high school, putting him just under the top 1 percent of the public. Not surprisingly, the former vice president's' SAT scores were also strong but not stratospheric: Verbal 625, Math 730, for a total of 1,355 out of a perfect score of 1,600.

According to historian Thomas C. Reeves, author of "A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy," in prep school JFK scored a 119 on an IQ test. Reeves told UPI, "Kennedy was at no time outstanding in school; spelling was always a problem for him."

Bush's other published scores are from the Air Force officer test he took when he applied to join the Air National Guard. The Dallas Morning News reported on July 4, 1999, that Bush's "score on the pilot aptitude section, one of five on the test, was in the 25th percentile, the lowest allowed for would-be fliers."

Gottfredson pointed out, though, that officer applicants are a relatively elite group, so that's much better than the 25th percentile among the whole population. Further, this subtest focused on spatial questions that don't come up regularly in the Oval Office, such as "identifying the angle of a plane in flight ... and figuring out which way a gear in a machine would turn in response to another gear's being turned."

In contrast, the Morning News recounted, "On the 'officer quality section,' designed to measure intangible traits such as leadership, Mr. Bush scored better than 95 percent of those taking the test."

Gottfredson commented, "What do you want in a president -- spatial ability or leadership?"

University of California-Davis psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton has written numerous books using quantitative techniques to assess historical figures, including his 1987 work "Why Presidents Succeed: A Political Psychology of Leadership."

Simonton told UPI, "In raw intellect, Bush is about average" for a president.

On the other hand, Simonton didn't see much evidence that Bush tries hard to use the brains he's got. "He has very little intellectual energy or curiosity, relatively few interests, and a dearth of bona fide aesthetic or cultural tastes." Simonton speculated that this could suggest a low level of "openness to experience."

Indeed, despite being the scion of an elite family with worldwide connections, Bush's hobbies appear limited to not much more than running, fishing and baseball. His biographers state, however, that he has paid relentless attention to structuring organizations and assessing the people who could fill them.

Simonton also suggested, "Bush scores extremely low on integrative complexity. ... This is the capacity to look at issues from multiple perspectives and to integrate that diverse outlook into a single coherent viewpoint. ... Bush finds it hard to view the world in other way than his own. That's why he's so hard to engage in a genuine debate. He can say 'I hear you,' but he really can't."

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.

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