Smart is Not Enough

I’m in Washington, DC this week and the town reels already with inauguration fever, even as the temperature plunges. As I type, a flatbed truck bearing 12 port-o-sans drives past the window, headed for the National Mall, there to await the expected millions next Tuesday. At least this week, the capital’s homeless will find a convenient place to relieve themselves.

Capitol Hill buzzes each day with confirmation hearings on Barack Obama’s nominees for various cabinet positions. As it is with every new administration, reporters and pundits gush over how intelligent the new team is, calling them “superwonks” and “hot nerds.”

It’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose – and memory. Eight years ago this week, the same reporters and pundits were writing about how “adults will once again be in charge of foreign policy.” Doesn’t look that way from here. George Bush, going out the door, say there’s no such thing as “short-term history,” hoping that he will somehow be vindicated.

History may not be short- or long-term, but it does come in a variety of flavors. Republicans have done a good job of placing an undeserved halo around the head of Ronald Reagan. I doubt they’ll be motivated to exert themselves so strenuously on Mr. Bush’s behalf.

We were told Mr. Bush’s team was full of smart people. Eight years of their best thinking has left us in a deep pit in economics, environment and foreign policy, deep enough to serve as America’s grave. Mr. Obama’s cabinet secretaries will have to be smart enough to perform CPR in every department.

Like history, intelligence comes in a variety of flavors. There is no doubt Mr. Bush’s team exhibited several kinds of intelligence. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who more than any other two people set the tone for the Bush administration, were skilled at the bureaucratic infighting that is the hallmark of smarts in Washington. They are knowledgeable, shrewd and clever. They, and their cohorts, were able to deftly move the executive branch to give them exactly what they wanted: massive tax breaks for the already-rich, huge government contracts (often without competition) to their corporate friends, vaporization of civil rights and environmental protection and a military apparatus they used to bully the world.

Smart, however, does not equal good. The rarest and most valuable form of intelligence is wisdom and of that, Messrs. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush had none and from all evidence, they didn’t want any. Wisdom would have steered them away from selfishly enriching themselves with money and power.

Now the Obama team is lauded for its smarts. Again we see the gap between intelligence and wisdom. New Mexico’s Governor Bill Richardson, who was tagged to be Commerce secretary, resigned amid an investigation into some commerce involving his state that – even at this slight remove – seems clearly unwise, regardless of how smart it was (or wasn’t).

This week, Mr. Obama’s pick for Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is being called out for incorrectly filing his taxes. His transgressions are being spun as “honest mistakes,” but as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times note, some of these errors were pointed out to him (and he corrected them), but he failed to correct similar errors in tax returns for other years. Whiz that he is, he even filled out many of those returns rather than hiring an accountant, leaving him bereft even of a political excuse.

The amount of money involved is not huge, tiny in fact, compared the least of sins committed the Bush team. But that’s not the point. Mr. Geithner should have filed an honest return and paid his taxes. Mr. Obama should have the wisdom to realize it’s way too soon to ask the public to overlook this or that ethical lapse among his people. There’s never an appropriate time for that in any administration.

The good news is that it’s early enough to learn from all this. Mr. Obama has been magnanimous about forgiving political sins, like those committed last year by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT). Forgiveness is important, but repentance and atonement are equally important. Let us hope that from this moment forward, we are not too smart to be wise.

© 2009, Mark Floegel

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