Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trump, Obama, and Grades

So... Donald Trump has now claimed that he has "heard that Obama was a terrible student," and wants to see his grades and test scores.  Oh, where to begin?  Let's start with disclaimers.  First, now that Trump has identified himself repeatedly and vociferously with the whole "birther" business*, it cuts the legs out from under the far-more-reasonable suggestion that the grades be released.  Secondly, my visceral dislike for The Donald makes it difficult for me to accept anything he says, including "2+2=4."  And third, there is a steaming pile of "so what" at work here.  As I recall, Nixon, Clinton, Carter, and Hoover were all stunningly brilliant.  Lincoln and Truman didn't have a day of college, Reagan graduated from Eureka College, and FDR was famously described as "a second rate intellect, but a first rate temperament."  And recently the JFK library released Kennedy's Harvard admissions application, on which the only noteworthy item was "Father's Name: Joseph P. Kennedy."  So whether Obama is the most brilliant supra-genius after Will Ferrell in Megamind or a barely above-average fellow makes little difference.

OK.  Fine.  But there is the other side, too.  For my entire adult life I've had to listen to almost every Republican politician called a mouth-breathing moron.  Bush 43, or course.  Sarah Palin.  Dan Quayle.  Reagan.  Eisenhower, for pity's sake.  Gerald Ford (I think it was Tip O'Neill who said he had played too much football without a helmet.)  Those who were not stupid were crazy (Nixon, Goldwater, Cheney) or out of touch (Bush 41).  I guess Reagan must have been all three.  The fact that Bush 43 got his undergrad from Yale and an MBA from Harvard, and also managed to fly a jet fighter, counts for nothing.  So pot, meet kettle--it is not entirely unreasonable to ask for some semblance of proof that a fellow touted as indescribably brilliant really is.

If you do any reading on this topic, you get caught in a giant loop.  You have the absence of any hard evidence on the one side (with the notion that if proof of brilliance was really out there, it would have already have been trumpeted from  the rooftops).  On the other, you get the facts that Obama graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law, and was President of the Harvard Law Review.  Here's the thing: before 1981, making the Law Review was done 100% on grades, and the very top student was the President.  Should be a slam-dunk.  But after that, and before Obama's admission, they gamed the process to fix the fact that hardly any Law Review editors were women or minorities.  They also made the Presidency an elected office.  Does that mean that Obama was an affirmative-action Editor?  Not necessarily.  But if it is fair to assume that any academic credentials held by George W. Bush must have been corrupted by nepotism, why is it off-limits to wonder whether a multi-racial, multi-national son of a Harvard grad might have gotten a bump somewhere?  And there is no doubt that the man is an excellent campaigner.

That still leaves off the deal with "Magna Cum Laude."  That's the middle level of honors--Cum Laude is lowest, Summa Cum Laude highest.  If Obama had gone to the University of SC, I could tell you for sure that he had to have a 3.75 GPA to qualify.  But I don't know about Harvard.  On paper, everybody who gets into Harvard is brilliant.  That doesn't mean that the middle ones get a 2.0.  I know that today, there is much ink spilled over grade inflation at the Ivies.  I have no idea what it was like back in the late 80s.  It may very well be that Obama's "Magna" means he was top 10% of his class.  It might also be the case that 3/4 of the class was "Cum Laude," the top half "Magna," and the top quarter "Summa."  I don't know--but to assume either one is a leap of faith, likely rooted in wishful thinking.  And even if his grades were good, were they good in all classes?  What I mean is, did he bust the curve on Torts 1 or Contracts, which everybody takes?  Or was he mid-pack  in those, but aced the sorts of electives where being smooth, and glib, and right-thinking (liberal, of course) are an advantage? 

I suppose the very best answer to the question, "how smart is he" would be found by looking at standardized test scores, if only because they are taken by everybody.  SATs and LSATs would be the obvious ones.  And since President Obama is older than me (but not by much), I know that the SAT he would have taken would be the pre-1996 version which correlates almost perfectly with IQ.  (The modern version does not--but the "old" SAT was acceptable as an entrance test for Mensa, among other things.)  Now, if Obama took the PSAT (which I don't know), and if he really did have the kind of IQ that usually results in being top of your class at Harvard, you could reasonably expect him to have been a National Merit Scholar.  That ranking is done entirely from the test--double your verbal score plus your math.  But there are lists of National Merit winners, and Obama's not on them.  Again, maybe he didn't take the PSAT.  Nobody's saying he's dumb.  But the hard evidence of his purported brilliance is not all that solid.

What?  Don't like the sound of that?  Well, here's a solution.  Consistency.  How about we say, "He couldn't have gotten where he is now without being pretty darned bright."  And say the same thing about, say, George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.  Or say, "Raw, testable intelligence is no predictor of leadership."  And give the same benefit of the doubt to Reagan.  But it seems to me that to define "intelligence" as "a quality found only among those whom I like and agree with" is not clear thinking.

*Note: If you have doubts that Obama was born in Hawaii (and I saw on a muted TV at dinner tonight that CNN now has supposedly proven that he was), just ask yourself this: if there were ANY chance that Obama were not eligible to be president, do you doubt for a second that we'd have President Hillary Clinton right now?  I might could believe that men didn't land on the moon, that Oswald was a clone, and that Dick Cheney caused hurricane Katrina with his magic weather machine.  But to believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton somehow decided to play nice and take one for the team is a bridge too far.


MichaelPolutta said...

I really wish you would write a column.

Greg and Kim said...

I agree; I could definitely see this in print.