If you've worked in the Bush administration, sooner or later the question comes: How smart is he? Sometimes the question is snarky. Sometimes it's sincere. Always it comes freighted with presumption.
The short answer is: Yes, of course, President Bush is smart. Even by the credentials that most impress these days, he's got the same Ivy pedigree as his successor. (I would bet on better grades too, but we don't know because President Obama won't release his college records.) Still, the better answer is a completely different question: Is he a man of courage? That's an old-fashioned word, courage.
In my own career, I have known many smart people: those with Nobel Prizes, who teach at the world's leading universities or run the world's most dynamic businesses—in short, people with intellectual firepower that would light up the sky. In my life I have also found what I suspect most Americans have found in theirs: The ones you come to respect are those you know will stand up when you need them.
As a White House speechwriter, I learned much about the battlefield version of courage from our Medal of Honor ceremonies. One was Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham. When an Iraqi insurgent rolled out a grenade during a search of his car, Cpl. Dunham did not hesitate. He jumped on that grenade, using his helmet and body to absorb the blast. He gave his life—and two of his brother Marines are alive today because of it.
I saw another version of courage in President Bush. My time in the White House coincided with the worst times of the Iraq War. Each day seemed to bring news of good Americans dying for no appreciable gain, of Baghdad descending into hell, of some congressman or senator who had supported the effort in easier times now calling for America to cut and run.
More than once President Bush told me, "We are not going to lose our nerve and abandon the people of Iraq the way we did the people of Vietnam, from an embassy rooftop." It made for a lonely presidency. Rather than accept defeat, he ordered a surge that almost no one—including some around him—wanted: not the Pentagon, not a weary American public, certainly not Republicans or Democrats in Congress.
The night he gave that speech, Jan. 10, 2007, did not go well. The network gummed up the news feed. The president looked stiff and uncomfortable. Scarcely before he'd finished, the glib and gifted were on television declaring it a flop. The president expected as much. He did what he had to do anyway.
So successful was the surge that today we take it for granted. The progress we see in Iraq, and even the progress President Obama has made in Afghanistan, would not have been possible but for that surge. That surge would not have happened but for President Bush's will.
It's illuminating to look back at where the "smart set" was at the time. They were the folks on the Iraq Study Group, essentially calling for a dignified retreat. They were the people declaring Iraq an "unwinnable civil war." Alas, some conservatives also let their feelings of superior smarts get the best of them. Even today they've blinded themselves to an extraordinary feat of history: how a president with low public approval ratings but high integrity turned what looked to be another American humiliation into a victory for freedom.
I cannot forget. So when I look out at the Republicans vying for the 2012 nomination, I am looking for more than a candidate who shares my policy preferences. I want to know whether that someone is a stand-up man or woman. In today's media environment, that also means someone willing to be thought stupid by a class of people who think the crease in a man's trousers tells you something about presidential ability.
Many years ago in his autobiography "Out of Step," the philosopher and Cold Warrior Sidney Hook related how the 1960s surrender to student radicals by university administrators and faculty—people who knew better—led him to revise his belief that "intelligence was the supreme virtue." His mistake, he wrote, had been to take "for granted the operation of moral courage."
The American people do not have that luxury. For when it comes to the toughest decisions, the man or woman sitting in the Oval Office will likely find the facts incomplete and some of the smarter people on staff retreating into the tall grass of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand recommendations. In these moments, freedom's place in a dangerous world hangs on the character and instinct of the president.
So let others fret about George W. Bush's smarts. For my nation's sake, I'm hoping our next president has some of his steel.