So who were the big brains? Who among our prime ministers were the most cerebrally gifted?
In last week’s column, I raised a few eyebrows with my observation that Pierre Trudeau and Stephen Harper had the sharpest minds of the PMs of the past century. Some respondents agreed, while others took serious exception to the Harper ranking, asking how I could possibly say that someone who governed like an autocratic bully had such a smart mind. The two, of course, aren’t mutually exclusive.
A PM who should rank at or near the top in any brainiac rankings, a reader insisted, is the polymath Richard B. Bennett. The non-swinging bachelor, who served as PM from 1930 to 1935, had what biographer John Boyko described as “stunning intelligence.” By 18, he had already become a school principal in his native New Brunswick. He went on to make a fortune in business ventures before turning to politics. He had a prodigious memory that could recall full passages at will. R.J. Manion, the one-time Conservative leader who served under five prime ministers, including Wilfrid Laurier and Mackenzie King, said Bennett was the brightest by a long shot.
Brains, of course, are not always key to political success. Ronald Reagan, who had less mental equipment than any leader I ever covered, was clear proof of that. Bennett, regarded by some as a pompous ass, had the misfortune of governing during the Great Depression. The high IQ didn’t help.
Mr. Harper is one of the few PMs Canada has had who wasn’t a lawyer. Mr. Harper, whose academic field was economics, is the longest-serving PM not schooled in the law. The country has had an exceptional predilection for putting legal minds on the throne, as opposed to men of finance. Since Canada’s economic management is more important than attributes possessed by barristers and solicitors, the advisability of the tendency is debatable. Of our long-serving prime ministers, no fewer than nine were lawyers. Only two or three had substantive tutelage in economics and finance.
Although he is exceptionally smart, Mr. Harper operates in an ironically anti-intellectual fashion. His government’s shameful penchant for repressing research serves as an illustration. He is too entrapped in ideology and too unimaginative to be considered a great mind. That said, his strengths are considerable. He is encyclopedic and deep, a precise thinker who, as anyone who’s worked with him will tell you, is master of the files. His understanding of issues is nuanced, and he applies that knowledge shrewdly and strategically.
In terms of intellectual pedigree, no PM stands above Pierre Trudeau. His thorough and systematic pursuit of knowledge, as seen in scrupulous detail in biographies by John English and Max and Monique Nemni, was remarkable.
Among Conservatives of the last century, not to be forgotten is Robert Borden. He was not only a legal whiz but an intellectually layered man who, as historian Michael Bliss relates, read Greek and Latin. Brian Mulroney was a quick study and an articulate one. John Diefenbaker was off in his own mythological world.
Among Liberal PMs of a similar time frame, Louis St. Laurent had an exceptional legal mind. For street smarts, it’s hard to top Jean Chrétien, the meat and potatoes pragmatist who eschewed intellectualism with good results. Lester Pearson was of impressive scholarly and diplomatic pedigree but too woolly of a thinker to rank with the best. And while Mackenzie King was gifted in many cerebral ways, his frequent descent into the looney chamber for table-rapping sessions and communing with the dead can’t be overlooked in any ranking of our most enlightened leaders.
King was one of the few with a background in economics (a master’s degree in political economy and work experience with the Rockefellers). It served him well, as it seems to be doing for Mr. Harper. While the country has produced many prime ministers of high intelligence, we could have used more men of finance and fewer from the bar.
R.B. Bennett, the former prime minister, was a lawyer. Incorrect information appeared in the print version and earlier web version of this column.