Presidential Portraits: Is Trump the Smartest of Them All?

By Jamie Stiehm

July 22, 2020 5 min read

President Donald Trump tells us he's an ace at cognition and intellect tests, never mind cheating on the SAT.

No president ever bragged about burning bright as a "genius" before, but you know our guy. He doesn't kid, especially about himself.

As a diversion from the country convulsed in contagion and turmoil, let's look at the big picture of American presidents with truly great minds. Several were brilliant, with a handful of geniuses, Thomas Jefferson first among equals. Any Virginian will tell you that.

Is it a coincidence that Trump banished two big pictures, portraits of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, out of sight in the White House days ago? They're living reminders of how rare the air is in climbing presidential peaks.

Do Clinton and Obama make the cut? The great generals? We'll see.

Jefferson wrote the words for the Revolutionary age, the Declaration of Independence. In 1801, he became a consequential president known best for a huge real estate expansion, the Louisiana Purchase.

All his life, Jefferson was an insatiable reader, a charming conversationalist and an amateur botanist and gardener who recorded weather patterns at home in his beloved Monticello. He spoke French like an ambassador to Paris (which he was), played the violin and designed the neoclassical mansion he called home.

Did I mention he believed in science? Jefferson was eager to know the Lewis and Clark expedition's findings of plants and animals along the way.

Jefferson is president of the genius club. Virginians say James Madison, his best friend, was also a genius. But Madison was a weak president — if you count the British burning Washington to the ground and him galloping away. He's known as the Constitution's author, flaws and all, so let that stick.

There's a case for John Adams and John Quincy Adams, cerebral and eloquent. As a boy, young Adams went on a mission to Russia with his father and observed high-stakes dealings between nations. After his one-term presidency, he became an outspoken opponent of slavery on the House floor. He died on the job in the Capitol. Yet neither Adams ranks as a great president.

Now, after a string of slave owners, we meet the first president from the prairie, outside the original states. Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War president, freed 4 million enslaved people and invented modern presidential prose in stark speeches that took somber turns.

Pretty good, right?

With his humanity, Lincoln's in the club with Jefferson, though Trump recently called it "questionable" that Lincoln was quite as great as he was.

Skipping stones for 35 years, we arrive at an author of 40 books, buoyant Teddy Roosevelt. He shared Jefferson's bracing zest and intellectual passion.

When told about these books in the White House library, I imagine Trump's fish eyes narrowing. "Books. I write a book every day with my tweets," he says. "How many followers did Teddy have?"

(Books are a sore subject given his niece Mary's bestseller on Trump as a monster ego made in his father's image.)

Teddy's in.

Then history rhymes. Another Roosevelt comes along 25 years later. Hailing from a family twice in the pantheon, cousins Teddy and Franklin were Harvard men.

Franklin inherited a nation in crisis, many "ill-housed, ill-clothed, ill-nourished" in Depression depths. By "bold, persistent experimentation" in government civilian work programs, he addressed the nation in plucky radio "Fireside Chats" that explained his aims and lifted morale. Harry Truman, his vice president and successor, was awfully smart.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a political genius who presided over a besieged, fearful nation and turned it into a confident, prosperous powerhouse.

Trump says, "I could crush him at golf."

John F. Kennedy had unquenchable curiosity and wrote two history volumes. His command of language elevated presidential prose almost to poetry. His wit was the stuff of legend. Yet his sojourn on earth was short.

Obama and Clinton: One talked a great game. One played a better game of peace and prosperity in the rollicking, robust 1990s. William Jefferson Clinton is the best living president.

By the skin of his teeth, Clinton's a junior club member to Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts and Kennedy. But Trump's dead last in presidential class.

Jamie Stiehm can be reached at To read her weekly column and find out more about Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit

Photo credit: skeeze at Pixabay

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