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WASHINGTON — I worked for a leader who was sometimes accused of lacking in the smarts department. But no one I know who spent time with President George W. Bush was left with that impression.

Bush took an almost gleeful satisfaction in picking holes in arguments, as any half-prepared briefer quickly learned.

He was also an avid reader of history. (I remember him passing along to me “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Laws That Changed America” and “A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan” after he had finished with them.)

Most important to Bush’s political rise, he has a remarkable facility for reading the emotional contours of small groups. If someone is feeling ignored or reluctant to contribute a relevant point, Bush zeroes in to make him or her feel comfortable and included.

During the 2000 campaign, I recall a briefing on humanitarian military interventions, attended by all of Bush’s first-string foreign policy advisers.

Not being one of them, I was seated at the periphery, in a chair with my back to the wall, trying to avoid notice. About halfway through the meeting, Bush paused and said to the group: “You know what I’d really like to know? I’d like to know what Mike Gerson thinks about this.” I sputtered something so forgettable that I have forgotten it. But the memory of feeling valued remains.

People close to President Trump may well have similar stories of unsuspected sharpness and acumen. But if this is a secret, it is a well-kept one.

Trump has said he has no time to read. “I never have,” he said in 2016. “I’m always busy doing a lot.” People who brief him report a gnat-like attention span. Trump’s frequent accusation that others are stupid or “low IQ” sits uncomfortably with his own shocking ignorance of history, science and economics.

Most recently, he seemed to understand “Western-style liberalism” as local governance in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Asked his view of busing, he judged it “a primary method of getting people to schools.”

Does presidential ignorance matter? A few presidents — like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln — rose through the power of brilliant writing and rhetoric.

Ulysses S. Grant wrote a memoir of enduring literary value. The 1912 presidential election pitted the author of “The Naval War of 1812: A Complete History” (Teddy Roosevelt) against the author of “Congressional Government: A Study in American Government” (Woodrow Wilson).

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There is not, of course, a necessary connection between brilliance and judgment. And it is true that writers tend (sometimes unfairly) to prefer the kind of intelligence expressed in writing.

That said, it is evident that Trump’s combination of ignorance and arrogance exposes the United States to needless global ridicule. His misunderstanding of basic economics — particularly his insistence that China will pay tariffs rather than U.S. consumers — has led to bad and dangerous trade policy.

But Trump’s most consequential deficit may lie in his emotional intelligence — what political scientist Joseph Nye defines as “the self-mastery, discipline and empathic capacity that allows leaders to channel their personal passions and attract others.”

This ground is also covered by the term “temperament.” And we are seeing what happens when presidential temperament is entirely absent.

Trump’s lack of self-mastery often makes his interventions in foreign and domestic policy spasmodic and unstrategic. His incapacity for empathy results in cruelty — see the migrant children at the border — that strikes at the moral core of American greatness.

Trump is unable to find any value in the views of a political opponent, which puts both national healing and useful compromise beyond his abilities. He is only capable of governing on behalf of those who support him, making him vulnerable to manipulation through flattery.

This is bad enough in the context of American politics. It is worse on a global scale. Ultimately, the lack of presidential temperament leaves Trump unable to distinguish between American friends and autocratic rivals who play on his own vanity.

And this allows strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to murder, intimidate and attack Western liberalism under the protective cover of Trump’s narcissism.

This is a more disturbing matter than gaps in the president’s knowledge.

Those who dismiss the importance of presidential temperament must reckon with the fact that Trump’s endless self-regard is being exploited — and easily exploited — to undermine the interests of the United States.

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Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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(40) comments

johnnybragatti

Exlax too is being "showed" up again at the idiocy of the Orange Carcass. Now here"s a dude, way ,way older than he admits tries ,in vain, to sound intellectual, even though he is severely suffering , from late stages of whatever. Dude ,it ain"t our fault you never made it very far in life. It ain"t Hillary"s fault either. It sure ain"t Obama"s. It is most likely trump, had more to do with your forlorn,decrepit and misbegotten demise.Those numerous bankruptcies, you paid for !!! Perhaps that is how you share your love and devotion for your idol? I could and would NEVER do that....but then I"m just a tad smarter, than yourself and come from a stronger stock.

new2Lax

The only temperament that really matters is what is necessary the best result for the country and its people, basing decisions on emotion basis is the absolute wrong thing to do and having the ability to see that few whole have, Trump has it. He recognizes and analyses the problem, discounts the emotion and makes the decision. I’m sure Harry Truman would have not dropped the bomb if he listened to the emotional side of the argument, he saw what all good Presidents see, what’s best for the country and its people.

PhysicsIsFun

Oh yeah! Trump really impresses me with his clear headed thinking and rational behavior. That's why so many people (including psychiatrists and other mental health experts) say he is mentally ill. I think much the same could be said of his supporters, including you. Plus your disjointed and ungrammatical writing is hard to follow. What is your diagnosis?

new2Lax

If you only could wish for my diagnosis, you would be a happy camper. The so many people you are referring to so far as I can tell were and are people like yourself with no medical acumen what so ever, you speak of what you know nothing about, it’s more or less an allegation because of your fear of being exposed for what you are. Who are these medical geniuses that have made a diagnosis without an examination. For gods sake you sound like Nancy Pelosi and passing the Bill comment, so you can find out what’s in it. I bet now that you read this you feel as stupid as what your comments show you to be. Who would make such an statement and including psychiatrists as being foolish enough to make a diagnosis without a examination. What you have is what Democrats always have, bad information on just about everything. Let me ask you this, when you have what you think is a need to see a doctor and maybe a need for a medication, why not just call the doctor and ask him what you should take for what is ailing you, after all you seen all these medications on tv and know what they are for, how’s that for an example of how ridiculous you are.

PhysicsIsFun

Here read this. "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump is a 2017 book, edited by Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a forensic psychiatrist, containing essays from 27 psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health professionals on the 'clear and present danger' that US President Donald Trump's mental health poses to the 'nation and individual well being'." You certainly burned me with your well thought out comment. Let me know when you have some evidence to support Republicans acting with scientific, mathematical, economic, or reasonable thought. Ideology and a pursuit of power is all they care about. Their actions fly in the face of facts and current thinking on every question from climate change to supply side economics. Trump is even worse. His unhinged dangerous behavior risks our very safety. Get a clue dude. You're not convincing anyone on here but your soulmate Rick Czeczock. You two deserve each other. You're both bitter, empty, ignorant, old men. Turn on Fox and zone out on the stupidity therein.

PhysicsIsFun

In addition to my previous comment I can't help to wonder about your self proclaimed illustrious career as a HR executive in a Fortune 200 company in Minneapolis. It boggles my mind that a person unable to write a coherent sentence in English was an executive anywhere. Perhaps English is not your native language. Maybe Russian? Are you one of those Russians paid to disrupt American society on the internet? I can not decide which is more likely, a lying buffoon who never learned how to write or a Russian provocateur. I guess we will never know. Just so you know I think buffoon is most likely. Russia probably trains their people to write better than you demonstrate.

new2Lax

You are just to easy.

PhysicsIsFun

By the way it is TOO easy to rebut your idiotic ramblings.

oldhomey

After your splenetic, impossible to understand 10:45am comment, new2, your followup but five-word 10:46am post says it all. You and your remarkably huge but puzzling ego are a joy each day, a laugh a minute. It is all directed at you.

johnnybragatti

Way,way,way too funny., as the Dibagger keeps the old head in the sand and believes there are no "negative results". Aahh old timer....you wanna bet? Ya'll ain"t paying a whole heckuva lot of attention, are you. I feel sorry for your daughters, having a so -called papa, so excruciatingly, disgustingly and rampantly blind. You may want to consider what THEIR future holds and the rude awakening, they will experience as this Horror Movie flickers on. Think of them ,if nothing else., for C_____"s sake. I would truthfully call ya'll an unfit father,otherwise.

DMoney

[sleeping]

Jobaba

There are many negative results. What you fail to understand is that most people are on to you. You are a die-hard Trump supporter, and no matter what is presented you will merely wave it away, dismiss or lie about it. I hate to tell you the truth because that will be dismissed as well, but people are over it. They no longer want the obvious distortion of alternate facts. It is insulting to their intelligence. A world where Donnie is the Queen of everything good but plays no part in anything bad is not possible. Only those trapped in the Trump echo chamber can't see it.

DMoney

Name some. Not your opinions, not his negative character traits, not speculation or possibilities. Name cold hard facts that are detrimental to American people. Some things that don't count: Russian collusion/obstruction (no charges pending), the border situation (doesn't impact American citizens), how our allies like us (they are still our allies). I already said the deficit has ballooned, which is bad and factual. What else? Good luck.

Jobaba

Preemptive denials. Your game is not worth playing. Read.

DMoney

You CAN'T do it. This is hilarious.

martian2

exactly jobaba, D asks the same question about every week, but he puts more and more stipulations on it as the facts are revealed to him. Again he just changes the goal line, there is no end game with him. His game is to brag about Trump and he is desperate to do so. He is the master of false narratives and childish and mindless arguments.

johnnybragatti

Spot on Mart !When an idiot is stuck in idiot mode, there is no turning back. No mention is made of trump"s emboldening of white racists and supremacy ,across the land. To us that,would be a negative, whereas an idiot would label it a good thing.No obstruction????,he says., Firing Comey for not saying he"d be "loyal"is 1st degree obstruction. I can"t believe the d--bag has kids , though he may as well be lying. If he does? I feel pretty dern sorry for the kids , as he raises them, among all his hatred

PhysicsIsFun

"Data. I must have data. Give me proof not opinions." What a load of cr@p. You would have to be blind and deaf not to notice the terrible harm Trump is doing to this country. Trump supporters have one or more screws loose. Personally I am sick of the discussion. You will never convince them that Trump is a terrible dangerous president. So quit trying. They must have some sort of mental or emotional dysfunction to continue to support him. They scare me a lot more than undocumented immigrants.

DMoney

You cannot name a single fact of how Trump's presidency has negatively and substantially impacted this country. You lose. You totally and completely lose.

DMoney

Like what? Not one of you have named a fact. For non-commenting readers--I hope you are seeing this. They havya wide open window to prove me wrong and make me look foolish. But not one fact. Incredible.

PhysicsIsFun

Dmoney thanks for once again proving my point with your idiotic plea for proof. The proof is in front of your face, but you just refuse to acknowledge it. The emperor indeed has no clothes.

DMoney

I see a bloated budget. No denying that. I see a stupid, overinflated 4th of July celebration with tanks and Trump center stage. Very dumb, but, harmless to the country and it's citizens. My eyes are open, give me facts and data and I'll be receptive. Give me a chance. Not speculation, opinion, irritations.

oldhomey

What bloat do you think should be trimmed from the budget, D? Healthcare? Social Security? Medicaid? Education? Infrastructure? Assistance to families below the poverty line? Funding of regulatory agencies? All of those are things that help people. Or are you thinking more in terms of cutting taxes further for the corporations and "job creators billionaires", cutting military expenditures to fraud-ridden military suppliers, giving subsidies to fossil fuel companies and other non-productive expenditures that line pockets of the impossibly wealthy?

DMoney

Yet, about 3 years in, no catastrophe. No negative results (other than increasing deficit), economy doing fine, no new wars, no lost allies, more peaceful with North Korea, better trade deals with Canada and Mexico. All this psychoanalysis doesn't mean squat if it doesn't result in a negative result.

oldhomey

Jo's critique in his 10:53am posting has you nailed, D. No catastrophe? Trump thrives on catastrophe. He creates a new one every other day, sometimes to draw attention away from the last one when public opinion militates against him. What new wars were you expecting to pop up had Hillary been in the driver's seat? His problem is not that so far he has avoided in dragging us into a new conflict, it is that he sets the stage for new conflicts while he has undermined our relationships with our traditional allies, who have lost most if not all confidence in us as a partner in keeping the peace. Meanwhile, he is needlessly kissing the butts of some of the worst dictators in the world, a man with no plan but awed by strong man dictators. What has he been giving away to Putin? He won't tell us. He has made North Korea, a dangerous country run my an unstable madman, stronger and even more unstable. Do you think Canada and Mexico are sighing sighs of relief with a new trade agreement when Trump willy nilly disregards formal trade pacts and changes the terms of agreement on a whim? Would you keep your mouth shut if you lived behind a levee along the river and saw a neighbor willfully weakening the structure, feeling that it makes no difference until there is a negative result?

martian2

homey you don't understand, as long as D's 401k s doing well, then nothing else matters. As long as the trains run on time, and he got money in his pocket, nothing else matters. there are no catastrophes in D's life as he is incapable of acknowledging the terrible treatment of little kids at the border, encouragement of white nationalism, and the mounting deficit to unprecedented levels. None of these D can actually experience personally yet, so yea they don't matter.

new2Lax

Many things matter, just not as much as the economy. I would have thought you would have know that. The little kids at the border obviously are being treated much better than before.

DMoney

Not if I believed my neighbor was strengthening said levee. We can disagree on the work he's done and what it will result in forever without changing our minds. Only history will prove who's right. I'm talking about proven, no question bad or negative results. Results such as the national debt. I can't argue that it's been anything but bad. Concrete facts here that have a tangible, real, widespread negative result.

oldhomey

Well, I don't see how you can ignore that said neighbor is not strengthening the levee, he is digging holes in it. You have yet to make a case that he is strengthening our hand in anything. He has no plan.

martian2

character matters, temperament matters, words matter. Oh they may not have consequences till years from now, but they do matter, any adult knows that. The lack of moral character of this president is appalling but you try to brush it off as it doesn't affect this country. Well it does, it always has, and always will. Without the skillful temperament and carefully chosen words by Lincoln we would of not survived the civil war. Without the encouragement and leadership of FDR this country could of easily buckled under to the fascists. Words matter, you parents should of taught you that long ago. Morality matters, basic knowledge of facts matter. My gawd you are as dense as your dear leader if you just brush all this aside. The consequences may not all appear right now, but they will appear. You brush aside facts like the border crisis as if it doesn't matter. Your moral IQ is about as low as a human can get.

martian2

its funny how you pick and choose facts. You talk about Hillary as the worst there ever was, yet the fact is she was never convicted of anything, nothing proven against her. But still you called her sleazy. Yet the one in the white house now, his sleaziness is revealed every day, well that just doesn't matter. Hypocrisy matters too.

DMoney

I didn't ask what he's doing right. That would be futile with you people. I'm asking what he's done wrong that had a negative impact on the country in a concrete and tangible sense.

DMoney

Ok, nobody can predict the future. It doesn't surprise me that you believe you can, although you must know deep down you are incorrect. If Trump's presidency results in a tangible negative impact after his tenure sometime in the future, you are more than welcome to come back here and rub my face in it. Until then, you've got nothing. Zilch, nada.

oldhomey

D, your apparently read and believe only right-wing echo chamber websites for your "news" consumption. There are daily news stories about what Trump is doing that is both wrong and harmful. There are columnists in this newspaper that list what Trump is doing that is wrong and harmful. There are people who post on these forums who daily post what Trump is doing that is wrong and harmful. If you must read it again, here is some of it. Let us begin, however, with his wrong and harmful conduct. He openly lies daily to the American people. The fact that his base, which is 35 to 40 percent of the American voters -- you included -- give him a pass on these lies is a very dangerous new wrinkle to our national life, one that is beginning to shred the needed common confidence that Americans have in its institutions. Without that basic trust, we will be faced with chaos in the future. Trump has turned his back on most of our mutual defense and trading partners, and the world feels lost without American will and leadership to defend the precepts of democracy. We are no longer an admired ally, we are a feared loose cannon on the world stage. Putin, Xi, Kim and the murderous Saudi regime all thank Trump for this, because they are using this sudden exposure of American weakness to rush in and fill the vacuum. Is that damaging enough for you? Trump believes his position puts himself above the law, so he ignores the constitutional limitations on using the office for personal gain, for one thing. He is now doing his best to undermine the responsibilities of Congress to oversee the presidency, and with the support of yahoos such as yourself, he might win. That will make the presidency a near-dictatorship if he pulls it off, which is apparently his end game at this time. Will that be a tangible, negative result for you? Or will you resist it, as all good Americans should? Trump has literally declared science and scientific inquiry as non-viable in the conduct of the nation. He has forbidden the use of scientific data gathered over the last four decades to be used in the consideration of global warming, which he has denounced as a sham. If he can do it there, he can do it to anything that displeases him, like proof of the dangers of lead poisoning in drinking water, or the dangers of toxic industrial waste being poured into our streams and waterways. That is a given. It is happening. It is extremely dangerous, tangible and producing negative results. I can go on, but it is the Fourth of July, I have to go out in a few minutes and mow the lawn and turn the compost pile. So I won't. I can do more listing for you later, if you want your nose rubbed in it now, rather than six or eight years from now.

DMoney

If you've gone this far, I'll ask you to go just a bit farther. Can you give me some sources to some of these claims. I'll promise to read them and I'll promise to do so as subjectivity as open mindedly as possible. I'll give you one with global warming. He's wrong. Humans are impacting the climate. But, his view on this is irrelevant to me considering I believe we're too far gone. And even if we took massive measures here, it wouldn't be enough. So I view his opinion as irrelevant. I'll also give you his tendency for being dishonest and non forthcoming. I suppose that's a poor quality for a president. But, it's no different from most politicians and it hasn't harmed anyone in terms of their lives, livelihoods. So while irritating, it isn't debilitating.

DMoney

Non-subjectivley*

oldhomey

Well, D, you apparently do not read any reliable news outlets. These outlets report on these issues every day, with vetted sourcing. I hate using my time to do this, but I will try to get through this as quickly as I can: One. Trump openly lies daily to the American people. The fact that his base, which is 35 to 40 percent of the American voters -- you included -- give him a pass on these lies is a very dangerous new wrinkle to our national life, one that is beginning to shred the needed common confidence that Americans have in its institutions. This needs no specific source, D. It is in the news every day, and even you agree that the man has a severe problem with telling the truth. The problem is that in defending him, you and his supporters undermine the confidence in the institutions that he lies about, i.e. the Justice Department, the SEC, the FDA, OSHA, the EPA and, most recently, the Federal Reserve board. He does so not with honest questioning of their performance, but for dishonest reasons to influence their work to his advantage. If you must have a citation, try this one, though you can google and find scores of such articles: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/01/trust-trump-america-world/550964/ Two. Trump has turned his back on most of our mutual defense and trading partners, and the world feels lost without American will and leadership to defend the precepts of democracy. We are no longer an admired ally, we are a feared loose cannon on the world stage. Again, this is reported with great regularity in responsible media, Google it. Here is one such article: https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2017/06/26/u-s-image-suffers-as-publics-around-world-question-trumps-leadership/ Three. Putin, Xi, Kim and the murderous Saudi regime all thank Trump for this, because they are using this sudden exposure of American weakness to rush in and fill the vacuum. Ditto, again, if you pay attention to responsible media, but if you Google, this will be one of hundreds of observations on the topic: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-06-06/trump-s-world-is-more-dangerous-and-uncertain-for-ex-nato-chief Four. Trump is now doing his best to undermine the responsibilities of Congress to oversee the presidency, and with the support of yahoos such as yourself, he might win. Again, read reliable news sources, D. Here is one: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/us/politics/donald-trump-subpoenas.html Five. Trump has literally declared science and scientific inquiry as non-viable in the conduct of the nation. He has forbidden the use of scientific data gathered over the last four decades to be used in the consideration of global warming, which he has denounced as a sham. If he can do it there, he can do it to anything that displeases him, like proof of the dangers of lead poisoning in drinking water, or the dangers of toxic industrial waste being poured into our streams and waterways. That is a given. How could you have missed this, D? Even your right-wing echo chamber "news" must have been chortling about this stuff as a "victory", Here, try this: https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/398573-trumps-epa-rule-would-censor-science-putting-public-health-at-risk. As for Trump calling global warming a hoax, try the following on for size. It not only tells you the truth of what he has said, it brings us back to point one, Trump's constant lying, and then lying about what he said he never said. https://www.newsweek.com/what-has-trump-said-about-global-warming-quotes-climate-change-paris-agreement-618898 He is your man, D. You defend him endlessly. Beats me why you do.

capedcrusader

Wow. Gerson told the truth about Trump. He should have been just as candid about Bush. I can hardly wait to see all those paintings Bush has been working on.

martian2

Brilliant piece of writing by Gerson. Too bad Trump won't know anything about it cause he won't read! Gerson wrapped up all Trump's personality disorders into one neat little column and what it means for this country and the world. A Smack dab perfect analysis that is revealing and disturbing at the same time.

new2Lax

He sure seems to be qualified.

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