Finding Smartness, Intelligence, and Wisdom in America’s Presidents

In choosing a President, or any person for leadership responsibilities, there are important distinctions to be kept in mind. The consequences of understanding these distinctions are monumental. Indeed, they are history-shaping. Consider these distinctions:

Smartness is the ability to manipulate information, events, and people — literally, to get what one wants. There are plenty of smart people in the world, some honorable and others nefarious. All of our U.S. Presidents have embodied smartness, including the two worst bottom-of-the-barrel mistakes of history—Andrew Johnson (1865–1869) and Donald Trump (2017-2021).

Trump’s former Chief of Staff General John Kelly finally stated that Trump “is the most flawed person I have ever met,” nevertheless, Trump is indeed very smart in a vile sort of way. His capacity to manipulate information, events, and people (especially his non-astute supporters) is mind-boggling and chilling.

Wisdom is grounded in ethics, not as an afterthought or elective invoked only when convenient, but as the piercing center of every thought, word, and deed.

Intelligence, on the other hand, is less common in our Presidents. Intelligence is the ability to consider multiple layers of complexity. It thinks beyond instant gratification. Intelligence embraces nuance (remember when George W. Bush bragged, “I don’t do nuance?” Yikes.) An intelligent person or community, or nation can comprehend and fairly articulate viewpoints and perspectives other than their own.

Strikingly, intelligent people are curious to learn, and they let what they learn to shape and amend their values, worldviews, and behaviors. Traits such as emotional maturity, spiritual depth, and the ability to relate interpersonally with nature and people all permeate those who embody intelligence. We can be thankful that a portion of our U.S. Presidents has also developed a measure of intelligence.

Finally, there is wisdom. Wisdom is the rarest character trait of all and the most important. Wisdom perceives the bigger picture and the longer term. It strives for the common good and the well-being of all of God’s creation. A wise person can appreciate perspectives beyond the merely human.

Most importantly, wisdom is grounded in ethics, not as an afterthought or elective invoked only when convenient, but as the piercing center and circumference of every individual and collective thought, word, and deed. Wisdom knows and acts on bigger truths. Thankfully, a handful of our Presidents have also made room for and use of wisdom in their carriage.

To be sure, intelligent and wise Presidents make their share of mistakes too. However, they learn, adapt, and grow. People with only the capacity for smarts stay immature, and as we have seen over the past four years with Trump/Pence/McConnell, they cause so much harm and destruction.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are certainly intelligent, and in my opinion, they are showing great potential for wisdom too. January 20, 2021, cannot come soon enough.


4 thoughts on “Finding Smartness, Intelligence, and Wisdom in America’s Presidents”

  1. I’d like to include President Obama as wise and intelligent.
    He should be credited with The affordable care act, most of all.

    • Yes Lynn, I would put President Obama in the top 5 or 6 Presidents who went beyond mere smarts to embody honorable intelligence, wisdom, ethics. – Ron

  2. Spot on Ron! Interestingly, I have another friend in Westcliffe who is actually writing a book on “the characteristics of the president we need”. Although he only enumerates a few ‘must haves’, I’ll forward your blog to him anyway; I’m sure he’ll find it useful.

    BTW, isn’t there a Greek word contrast between gnosis and something else…knowledge and wisdom??? I don’t remember.

    BTW2. We’re lovin’ Superstition Mountain!

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