A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Who was the stupidest U.S. president?

June 22, 2001

Dear Cecil:

I understand that Thomas Jefferson was our smartest president. Who was our stupidest? Second stupidest? A related pair of questions: Did Yale not have an admissions department in the 1960s? If it did, doesn't it owe the country an apology?

Dear Cecil:

I realize there's probably no way the following can be determined with utter certainty. But in the best judgment of presidential scholars, have any of our chief executives — in addition to Ulysses S. Grant and George W. Bush, I mean — been alcoholics?

Cecil replies:

I get the feeling you guys are trying to make a point here. But this is no time to be coy. Let's put the question bluntly: Is George W. Bush the stupidest person ever to serve as U.S. president? If not, who is? And isn't he a drunk besides? It's all the fault of those goddamn Republicans on the Supreme Court. Why, I oughta …

There, there. Let's take this one step at a time.

(1) Is George W. Bush stupid? We have pretty good data here. In 1999 the New Yorker obtained a copy of the future president's Yale transcript and revealed that he'd had a C average in college and, more interestingly, scored 1206 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) — 566 on the verbal and 640 on the math.

To find out how this score stacked up, I called Educational Testing Service, publisher of the SAT, and learned that in 1994, SAT scores had been "re-centered." To offset the steady downward drift of test scores over the years, the scoring scale was adjusted upward so that the mean score for both math and verbal was again 500 (the midpoint on a scale of 200 to 800). Those who took the test before 1994 are now entitled to add a prescribed amount to their scores to see how they compare to students today. Having made the necessary adjustment, Little Ed announced, "I got 800 on my verbal! I'm a direct beneficiary of the stupidity of the American public!" Doing the same for Bush gives him 640 on both verbal and math, good enough for 88th percentile on the verbal and 86th in math were he entering college now. Those scores may not be as high as mine, of course, or even Al Gore's (625 verbal, 730 math unadjusted), but they ain't bad.

Then again, I recall having seen a college guide circa 1970 that listed the average SAT for Yale freshmen as about 670 in verbal, 705 in math. So Bush was well below average for his class. He must have written a great essay.

(2) Is Bush the stupidest president? Doubtful, but here the data is lacking. You can get a book called The Intelligence of Dogs but not The Intelligence of Presidents. I refrain from the obvious jokes. The best I could come up with was a 1926 list in which intelligence researcher Catharine M. Cox estimated the IQs of 300 famous people based on their achievements in childhood and early adulthood. Presidents ran the gamut from John Quincy Adams (165) to Thomas Jefferson (150) to Ulysses Grant (125). She didn't single out stupid presidents, but near the top of everyone's list you're sure to find Warren G. Harding, probably the nation's least competent chief executive, who described himself as "a man of limited talents from a small town. … I don't seem to grasp that I am president." Among presidents since FDR, political scientist Fred I. Greenstein (Presidential Difference: Leadership Style From FDR to Clinton) cites Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan as being "marked by cognitive limitations," although even detractors would concede they had their gifts.

Smarts aren't easy to judge. Greenstein gives John F. Kennedy high marks for brains, but according to biographer Thomas C. Reeves (author of the infamous A Question of Character), Kennedy as a kid scored a less-than-brilliant 119 on the Otis Intelligence Test and graduated 65th out of 110 at Choate. And remember Bill Bradley, who everybody considered brainy but boring? His verbal SAT score, according to Slate: just 485.

(3) As for alcoholic presidents … define alcoholic. According to The Health of the Presidents (1994) by John M. Bumgarner, the following were heavy drinkers: Martin Van Buren, Franklin Pierce (died of cirrhosis), James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson (appeared drunk at the inauguration in 1865), Ulysses S. Grant, and Chester A. Arthur. The next edition may include George W., who had that 1976 drunk driving conviction. Regarding other substance abuse . does it count if you don't inhale?

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