Friday, May 07, 2004

Speaking in Public

It has been much remarked that President Bush often stumbles over his words in public speaking. It has nearly as often been suggested that this is a sign of low intelligence.

This second suggestion can be made only by someone who confuses intelligence with the ability to spout BS. We've all seen politicians who have the latter gift. People who can take the toughest questions in stride, and then immediately launch into a several-paragraph answer that almost imperceptibly maneuvers the discussion into the very points that they intended to make, all while avoiding any answer to the actual question. It's a nice ability to have, I suppose.

Politicians are supposed to be able to speak at the spur of the moment on any of several dozen topics (foreign policy, Social Security reform, tax policy, health care, pension plans, education, national security, environmental regulation, etc.), each of which would take a lifetime of concentrated research to master. No one can do this and always be right. It is inevitable that all politicians would make innumerable mistakes or miscalculations throughout their careers.

Yet, for some reason, most of them don't want to admit error. To hear some politicians talk, anyone of their own party is like a pope whose every word is ex cathedra. None of them say, "Sorry, I screwed up that issue because I didn't know what I was talking about." Instead, they all try to pretend that their mistakes didn't really happen. But where some politicians would be able to change the subject smoothly and effortlessly when asked about a mistake, Bush isn't that good at it. He stumbles over his words when asked a hard question.

But this isn't a sign of lesser intelligence. Even if you don't accept Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, there is no reason to think that intelligence and BS automatically go together. Indeed, people who think that intelligence manifests itself only in the ability to BS are themselves displaying low intelligence.

By all the traditional measures -- grades, test scores, educational accomplishments, etc. -- I'm reasonably smart. But if you put me on TV in front of 50 million people, I'd be so nervous that I'd probably fumble for an answer if simply asked my name. And from my experience, I'm no exception. Some of the smartest people I've ever known are simply not that impressive at speaking even in private conversations, let alone on national television.


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