In politics, smart is as smart does

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The press, who are supposed to be smart, can't seem to stop talking about Justin Trudeau being not too bright. CBC's Susan Bonner made the de rigueur comparison to his dad's intellectual heft on Wednesday after the cabinet show. Rosie Barton was a bit subtler, saying Trudeau was surrounded by people who'd help him meet the challenges since, presumably, he lacks the brains on his own. It all echoed Bob Rae, damning with faint praise, before the election: "He's not a rocket scientist. He's not the smartest guy in the room. But..."

For what it's worth, I never found Trudeau père all that brilliant. By the time we got to know him in the late 1960s, he was repeating insights he'd had 20 years earlier about the dangers of nationalism and Quebec's insularity. I can't think of anything he said that jolted you into recalibrating your sense of reality, which is the effect true intellectual creativity has. Perhaps his sudden success at that point dulled his mind. It happens.

For a better example of a leader not being smart, I'd propose Kathleen Wynne, who looked a lot sharper before she won. Now there's her "bone-headed" (Tom Walkom) plan to sell off Hydro One for no apparent gain and those stupid payouts to teachers' unions to cover costs of her new, absurdly complicated bargaining process, raising the question: Why'd you set that up?

Before entering politics, she had overcome some huge personal challenges, making it seem she wouldn't have anything petty to prove on the job and could be clear-eyed. What happened? Maybe she got swarmed by people who said she was there because she's brilliant and she started thinking other successful types, like her banker-adviser Ed Clark, made it by being brilliant too. Barack Obama is always extolling "really smart" guys he knows like Warren Buffet. They apparently forget success is more often related to backstabbing, brown-nosing, connections, self-interest and luck. Smart equals remembering that.

So what bothers me about the stress on "smart" isn't that definitions of it vary -- and lots of them are gender-related: who's loudest, most intimidating, etc. It's that, however smart is defined, it waxes and wanes with the circumstances of a life. It might get you somewhere; then, because you've arrived, you lose it. It's like the sophomore jinx in sports. Before you won rookie of the year, you were nimble and desperate. Then you got the prize and relaxed.

Bob Rae himself is another example. Before he chanced into becoming Ontario's premier, he'd failed on a number of levels, seemed humbled by it, and was in a lucid state of mind. Afterward, he started consorting with bankers and dissing the people who elected him, telling them to Get real and Wake up and smell the coffee. Fade to one-term wonder. Now he's saying Justin Trudeau isn't the brightest guy in the room. That'd be Bob, presumably, if he's there. On election night he went on TV to more or less take credit for the Liberal win. Whatever truth there is to that (none) it's not a smart thing to say if you're hoping to be appointed UN ambassador. Kind of stupid, actually.

I don't know how Justin Trudeau reacts to these ongoing putdowns. Based on my hefty theory (above) it's probably good for him. We've seen him bristle when it comes up, then get over it and carry on. Tales of him and his dad definitely make their home life sound intellectually combative.

In one interview he was asked to justify his plan to remove the child tax benefit from the very rich, who don't need it, and transfer it to poor families. He brightened and said it was like dinner once at home when he was a kid and his dad divided the pie into three exactly equal pieces. It made me furious, he said, because I was bigger! But he said it took him many years and experiences like teaching to understand why equality isn't just about equal measures; it has to account for varying needs and backgrounds. It was a case of using your parent's intellectual position (precise equality) to develop your own, subtler view. Your kid climbs on your back and surpasses you. What could be better than that?

I don't know if Trudeau the elder would approve, but he'd be smart if he did.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: John McCallum/flickr

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