“Smart” Advice

Ben Yagoda surveys the etymology of “smart” and concludes with a word of warning:

I would advise caution before completely casting our lot with very smart people. After all, the jokers behind Enron were fond of calling themselves “the smartest guys in the room.” That phrase—TSGITR—was the title of a book, then movie, about the scandal, but predates it by a good bit (it first shows up in the Lexis-Nexis database in 1985) and suggests some of the smug hubris that can come with this particular kind of intelligence. Richard Ben Cramer wrote in his 1992 book What It Takes, “Dukakis does not like to be the dumbest guy in the room. Michael is always the smartest guy in the room.” In 1995, an anonymous Democratic activist disparaged Mario Cuomo as “someone who always has to be the smartest guy in the room.” The following year, William Safire imagined Bill Clinton (himself known as a proud SGITR) reflecting about a potential Secretary of Defense, “the trouble with John [Deutch] is that he’s the smartest guy in the room and is driven to make sure everybody knows it.”

In some circles, Newt Gingrich is known for being smart. But as former congressman, current TV host Joe Scarborough once remarked, “Let me just say, if Newt Gingrich is the smartest guy in the room, leave that room.”