Many people, including some conservatives, have been very impressed with how brainy the president and his advisers are. But that is not quite as reassuring as it might seem.
It was, after all, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s brilliant "brains trust" advisers whose policies are now increasingly recognized as having prolonged the Great Depression of the 1930s, while claiming credit for ending it. The Great Depression ended only when the Second World War put an end to many New Deal policies.
FDR himself said that "Dr. New Deal" had been replaced by "Dr. Win-the-War." But those today who are for big spending like to credit wartime big spending for bringing the Great Depression to an end. They never ask the question as to why previous depressions had always ended on their own, much faster than the one under FDR, and without government intervention or massive government spending.
Brainy folks were also present in Lyndon Johnson’s administration, especially in the Pentagon, where Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s brilliant "whiz kids" tried to micro-manage the Vietnam war, with disastrous results.
There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.
Such people have been told all their lives how brilliant they are, until finally they feel forced to admit it, with all due modesty. But they not only tend to over-estimate their own brilliance, more fundamentally they tend to over-estimate how important brilliance itself is when dealing with real world problems.
Many crucial things in life are learned from experience, rather than from clever thoughts or clever words. Indeed, a gift for the clever phrasing so much admired by the media can be a fatal talent, especially for someone chosen to lead a government.
Make no mistake about it, Adolf Hitler was brilliant. His underlying beliefs may have been half-baked and his hatreds overwhelming, but he was a genius when it came to carrying out his plans politically, based on those beliefs and hatreds.
Starting from a position of Germany’s military weakness in the early 1930s, Hitler not only built up Germany’s war-making potential, he did so in ways that minimized the danger that his potential victims would match his military build-up with their own. He said whatever soothing words they wanted to hear that would spare them the cost of military deterrence and the pain of contemplating another war.
He played some of the most highly educated people of his time for fools– not only foreign political leaders but also members of the intelligentsia. The editor of The Times of London filtered out reports that his own foreign correspondents in Germany sent him about the evils and dangers of the Nazis. In the United States, W.E.B. Du Bois– with a Ph.D. from Harvard– said that dictatorship in Germany was "absolutely necessary to get the state in order."
In an age when facts seem to carry less weight than the visions of brilliant and charismatic leaders, it is more important than ever to look at the actual track records of those brilliant and charismatic leaders. After all, Hitler led Germany into military catastrophe and left much of the country in ruins.
Even in a country which suffered none of the wartime destruction that others suffered in the 20th century, Argentina began that century as one of the 10 richest nations in the world– ahead of France and Germany– and ended it as such an economic disaster that no one would even compare it to France or Germany.
Politically brilliant and charismatic leaders, promoting reckless government spending– of whom Juan Peron was the most prominent, but by no means alone– managed to create an economic disaster in a country with an abundance of natural resources and a country that was spared the stresses that wars inflicted on other nations in the 20th century.
Someone recently pointed out how much Barack Obama’s style and strategies resemble those of Latin American charismatic despots– the takeover of industries by demagogues who never ran a business, the rousing rhetoric of resentment addressed to the masses and the personal cult of the leader promoted by the media. But do we want to become the world’s largest banana republic?