Magazine article Modern Age

Reagan's Intellect

Magazine article Modern Age

Reagan's Intellect

Article excerpt

Conservatism today is thought of by right-thinking people as the result of status envy, economic insecurity, religious zealotry, and xenophobia. The contrary belief is that conservatism appeals to a more profound source of wisdom than can be found in the most accomplished theories of social science or political ideology, for it is derived from the wealth of ingrained knowledge acquired by the accumulated experience and reflections upon that experience of many generations and is, in other words, a personal rather than theoretical form of knowledge. The most apt representative of the quality of the conservative intellect in terms of governance is the late president Ronald Reagan.

That Ronald Reagan has been underestimated by his critics, especially those from the Left, goes almost without saying; but one aspect of their criticism does sting because it is an assertion that Reagan simply lacked intellectual ability, that in the words of a Democratic operative, Reagan was an "amiable dunce." The persistence of this jibe comes from the fact that progressive thought believes itself to be eminently rational, so much so that people on the Left come to believe that their political positions are what truly reasonable people will believe. As a result, progressive thought reacts by assuming that conservative positions are the result of either capitalist self-interest, malice such as racial prejudice, or simple lack of intelligence. This belief is commonly maintained by the American professoriate, which largely holds left-wing views; this phenomenon has been well documented and is especially observable in liberal arts faculties. One notorious result is the annual rankings of American presidents put out by professors of history, which usually show Roosevelt, Wilson, and Truman in the lead, second only to Washington and Lincoln, with the only modern Republican president on the upper half of the list being Teddy Roosevelt.

The point of this essay is not so much to evaluate the level of intellectual ability of Ronald Reagan, although that point will be covered, as much as to examine those qualities of his mind that made him an effective president. Rather the point is to get at what and how Reagan thought, how he saw the world and comprehended it, and what the implications of his intellect are in this sense for conservative governing philosophy. Ronald Reagan was not what is called a "policy wonk," as he argued his points by means of examples and appeals to common sense. He did not refer to statistics, long-term trends, root causes, charts, graphs, or formulas; rather, his general approach was based on his experience, for he had, as it were, played many roles in his long and active career, and he had learned from all of them. He also had a sense of inner confidence from having seen his beliefs confirmed over time by events that led him often to defy expert opinion in deference to his own hard-won principles.

Not So Dumb After All

The obvious retort to the accusation that a particular president is unintelligent is to reply, "Well, if he's so dumb, how did he get to be president?" This can be an ineffective response, since time and circumstance have influence in all things, and "dumb luck" in the form of an unexpected confluence of events may serve to get an unqualified man into any high office, including the American presidency. But the next iteration of the question, which applies to Reagan, is "If Reagan was so dumb, how did he get to be a good president, even a great president?" And here the eminent level of success that his presidency enjoyed goes beyond the possibility that time and circumstance enabled him to succeed, especially as Reagan's time as president spans eight years and a variety of circumstances and events that only an outstanding level of leadership could have dealt with successfully.

But there remains a question about Reagan's intellectual capacity, since Reagan did not seemingly possess on the manifest level outstanding analytic ability, something that was apparent in Nixon and Carter. …

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