August 5, 2004

Is Kerry smart? Was Kerry a war hero?

Soxblog asks (via Kausfiles) is John Kerry really so smart? I have to admit, like Soxblog, I've been wondering why Kerry went to Boston College Law School. Since he was rich, it can't have been the lure of a free ride. You would think, with his anti-war activism, he would have been a very attractive candidate for admission to Harvard (or another top-ranked law school) if only his LSAT and GPA were at all within range. No offense to Boston College, of course. I think it's similar to attending my school, the University of Wisconsin Law School. And the point is, he had an extremely admirable personal story and record of activism, as well as the ability to pay his way, so he could have gotten into Boston College with numbers well below those of the average students.

We keep hearing about Kerry's ability to deal with "nuance" and "complexity," but could it be that this is spin, and the truth is he actually doesn't think clearly? We know he doesn't speak clearly: he can't get to the point, and he often strays off-topic. We keep hearing that he's "thoughtful," implying that he takes a long time to think things through. Another way of putting that is that he's slow.

There has been so much talk about how dumb Bush supposedly is, that it's surely fair to ask about Kerry's mental capacity. What were his undergraduate and law school GPAs? What was his LSAT score? If we don't hear the answer, I think, we ought to assume the numbers are fairly low.

As to the question whether Kerry was really a war hero or some sort of war villain, the other and much nastier question that is being asked today, I will only note that if these charges were true, why didn't they come out back when Kerry was conspicuously opposing the Vietnam war and relying on his hero reputation for credibility? The motivation to discredit him was quite strong then. It seems awfully late to be bringing out this material. You may think that all the carping about Bush's military records justifies bashing Kerry's military record, but a key difference between the two attacks is that there wasn't a similiar motivation to attack Bush's record closer in time to the events in question. I think the absence of an earlier challenge of Kerry's record is quite probative. In any case, the attack on Kerry's military record is very ugly and is dragging the political debate to a repulsively low level.

UPDATE: Prof. Yin adds: "regardless of what anyone else thinks about the relative merits of Boston College vs. Harvard, doesn't Kerry seem exactly like the kind of person who would think that Harvard is more desirable?" And thanks for calling this post "nonpartisan." I really am nonpartisan about the presidential race!

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader (who wasn't happy with my acknowledgment of the hierarchy in the prestige of law schools) referred me to this biographical article about John Kerry that appeared in the Washington Post last week. It gives an explanation for why Kerry went to law school at Boston College. Kerry ran for Congress in the Fall of 1972, when he seemed to be a fast-track golden boy. He was devastated by defeat and:
The law became Kerry's Plan B. The Yale graduate wanted to return there to law school but could not because his wife, Julia, was expecting a baby. His next choice was Harvard, then Boston University, but he applied too late. Boston College offered the opposite of Yale's theoretical approach -- it was famous as a training ground for politicians -- but BC had an opening, and Kerry took it.
So he couldn't go to Yale because Julia was pregnant, but he couldn't go to Harvard because he was late in applying. How do you figure that? Also, one loses a Congressional election in November. That leaves a good two months to apply to any law school. The article describes Kerry as quite devastated by his election loss, and that may have hampered the application process. Schools do have different deadlines (though not before January). [MORE: The dates for taking the LSAT would also be a factor.] In any event, it was seen as odd that he became a student at BC:
Boston College law professor Thomas Carey strode into his first-year torts class and was stunned to see, near the back of one row, "this tall young fellow I'd been mesmerized by a couple of years earlier testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And there he was, starting off as a regular grunt."
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Instapundit (who links to this post--thanks!) opines that great intelligence may not be that important in a President. He notes Carter and Hoover were very smart. Maybe people somewhat less smart (or, really, intellectual) are better at making practical decisions. I think we all know some terribly smart people whom we would never want to rely on to make an important decision. In fact, supersmart people may be particularly bad at making decisions, because they may be too confident that they know better than others. So I don't disagree there. I'm not saying the smarter man ought to win or that if Kerry isn't as smart as he's made out to be he shouldn't be President. I'm just saying that since he's been promoted for his superior intelligence, it's fair to ask whether he really is all that intelligent. I've spent a lot of time struggling to follow what he's saying and trying to figure out what his opinions are, and this effort is affected by the assumption that he's as smart as they say. If he's not really all that smart, then his manner of speaking seems to be more a matter of covering up his inadequacies, as opposed to the product of a highly nuanced mind that sees all the complexities.

ALSO: I appreciated Lily Malcolm's posts about Kerry going to Boston College (which Instapundit links). She recognizes, as I do, that it sounds snobby to talk about law school ranking. One catches hell for mentioning it. She asked back in March:
By the time he applied to law school, the guy had a resume that should have made admissions offices salivate: St. Paul's, Yale, Skull & Bones, the Silver Star, testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he couldn't do any better for law school than BC? ... [M]ost people attend the most highly regarded school they can get into. And you'd think an overachieving, hyper-ambitious snob like Kerry wouldn't settle for less than the very best unless he had no other choice.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: I just reread Lily Malcolm's explanation of what makes law school admissions people "salivate." I have read admissions files for many of the 20 years I've been at Wisconsin. Let me say that, while the honored military service and the testimony in the Senate would be highly impressive, it would only justify admission to law school in the case of a person whose record as a whole shows a capacity to do the required work. And attending a series of prestigious institutions is impressive if the academic record itself shows that the person has diligence and aptitude, but if the academic record is poor those institutions scream privilege: here is someone who had great advantages. That is not a plus factor in admissions. All of this is to say, once again, that the known facts imply a weak academic record.

AND ANOTHER UPDATE: I've gotten a lot of email on this post. I provide some reader response for "Is Kerry a war hero?" here and for "Is Kerry smart?" here.

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