Brilliance can be dangerous

Charles Gordon June 25 1984

Brilliance can be dangerous

Charles Gordon June 25 1984

Brilliance can be dangerous


Charles Gordon

No matter who wins the next federal election, the Prime Minister you elect is not going to be a brilliant man. You might as well get used to that. Canada has been governed by a brilliant man for the past 16 years; after the dust of the election clears, Canada will be governed by a man who is merely smart.

Will that be enough? People worry about it. Will he be bright enough, they ask. How will he be when he represents us in foreign countries? Will he say something hopelessly banal? Will he use the wrong fork? Will he curtsy instead of bow?

How will he look? The worry about how we appear to others is part of a general Canadian insecurity that has led us into such undertakings as lavish film festivals, sound-and-light shows on Parliament Hill, domed stadiums and beer in the ball park, all impelled by anxiety over image. It is part of the reason we sometimes think of shedding a calm and decent way of going about life—because some foreigners have been known to find it dull.

We want the people who represent us in the world to make an impression, to dazzle. Pierre Trudeau, even when he was least popular at home, always earned our grudging respect for how he behaved abroad. Trudeau was a class act, he was brilliant. Whereas Joe Clark? How would Joe Clark look over there, people asked. Brian Mulroney? Any Liberal after Trudeau? Were these guys bright enough?

Joe Clark is best remembered for the stumbles of the world tour he took before he became Prime Minister. In fact, once in office, Clark did well. His only venture into Summitland, Tokyo in 1979, was a creditable performance. Reporters and officials were impressed by Clark’s ability to absorb information and profit from the briefings he received.

We might have learned then that brilliance is not necessary. Smarts, if you will pardon the grammar, is. When you think of it, there are few ranking geniuses on the world stage. The world leaders who are most important to us are Ronald Reagan, whose intellect is not widely considered to be his long suit, and Margaret Thatcher, who is not perceived as a rocket scientist even by her strongest supporters.

There is nothing new about this state of intellectual affairs. The great Western leaders of this century—Churchill,

Roosevelt and, in our country, King and Pearson—have been known more for their political skills than for their IQs. Roosevelt, for all his innovative programs, was not considered a brilliant man. In fact, his enemies found him to be a low sort of machine politician. Arguably, the two brightest American politicians of the century, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, were both brought low by their stubbornness, their inability to delegate and, perhaps most important of all, their unwillingness to compromise on their brilliant ideas.

That may sound familiar to Canadians who have watched their government over the past 16 years. The brilliant leader gets himself and his country into trouble because he can understand why he is right but he is unable to see why others cannot. Often, the brilliant ideas upon which he is unwilling to compromise are his own, which makes them

harder to give up.

The not-quite-so-bright politician gets his ideas from others. To him, they are not written in stone. He can give this little bit here away, in exchange for that. He can hear what others are saying. He can get something done. If he needs an opinion from a really smart person, he knows where to find one.

The solution, when it emerges, does not earn high marks for artistic impression. There are rough edges, frayed ends, a couple of odd-looking thingamajigs nailed on to the sides. But it is better than nothing. The brilliant man’s solution looks beautiful, but it is under glass somewhere, and no one will use it.

When brilliant men sat down in elegant and lofty surroundings to put together a new Constitution for Canada, nothing happened. It was only when some not-so-brilliant men got together late at night and whipped something together in a kitchen that a Constitution emerged. The document is not a work of art and has been rejected on esthetic grounds by those who object to seeing reflective tape and binder twine. But it is there.

Pearson was often portrayed by the

media as a bumbler. If there was brilliance there it did not shine. He did not always look good while bringing in such things as the flag, the Canada Pension Plan, medicare and taking the first steps toward bilingualism. His was the political equivalent of winning ugly. But it was winning. Pearson got things done, not by being brilliant but by being a nice guy, able to work with people and listen to them.

What people preoccupied with high intellect forget is that there are no brilliant solutions, despite the best efforts of brilliant men. When brilliant men search for brilliant solutions to difficult problems, they disagree. That isn’t much help.

Economists are brilliant, not to mention well educated. In famous institutions all over the world they have studied how the economy works. Yet they cannot agree on whether the dollar should be allowed to slide in value or whether its value, such as it is, should be maintained. They cannot agree on whether interest rates should be kept high to keep inflation in check or whether they should be dropped to increase employment. They cannot even agree on whether high interest rates check inflation or cause it. Yet these are brilliant men.

There are many brilliant psychologists. They cannot agree on whether pornography causes sexual violence or serves as a safety valve, diminishing sexual violence. There are brilliant criminologists who disagree on whether longer prison terms are valuable as a deterrent to crime or dangerous because they make the explosive problem of overcrowded prisons even worse.

Surrounded by brilliant advice, plagued by a dearth of brilliant solutions, the political leader can only listen to what people advise, measure what the public wants and try to come up with something that will offend as few voters as possible.

To do so effectively requires intelligence, to be sure. The best briefing book ever compiled will be of no use to a leader too stupid to understand the words in it. The finest advisers in the world will not help those who cannot comprehend what they advise. And it helps to be able to hear, as well as listen.

But brilliance? We have survived without it before. We will survive, maybe even prosper, without it again.

4Psychologists, even, cannot agree whether pornography causes sexual violence or, instead, diminishes it’

Charles Gordon is a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen.