Bush nailed by reporter's cheap shot

November 08, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Gov. George W. Bush of Texas is learning another of the harsh lessons of presidential politics -- that even a cheap shot can do some damage.

Mr. Bush was the victim of a cheap shot the other day when a Boston reporter asked him to name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan and India. The Texas Republican could produce only one name, that of Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan.

He also knew a general had led a takeover in Pakistan but could not identify him as Perrez Musharraf.

So what. It is quite likely that Mr. Bush was not the only candidate for president who might have had trouble coming up with some of those names even though their countries all have been in the news in recent months.

Heaven knows, most reporters and columnists who don't specialize in foreign policy would have been stumped on some of them.

But, Mr. Bush's critics point out, reporters and columnists are not running for president. And he is not only running but also, according to the opinion polls, the leading candidate for both the Republican nomination and the presidency.

Do we want someone in the White House who doesn't know that Aslan Maskhadov is the leader of Chechnya?

Presidential judgment

As a practical matter, the questions were essentially beside the point, if not irrelevant. If you become president, you hire the people who keep track of the names of foreign leaders.

What matters in foreign policy and in national security affairs is whether a president has the judgment to surround himself with the right people and to make prudent decisions when they are required.

Indeed, judging by recent history, expertise in foreign policy may be vastly overrated or quickly acquired. President Jimmy Carter came to the White House after a single term as governor of Georgia but brokered the landmark peace treaty between Israel and Egypt that laid the foundation for genuine progress toward peace in the Middle East.

President Ronald Reagan had no foreign policy credentials and couldn't remember the names of his own Cabinet members but presided over the end of the Cold War. The conservatives claim he won it single-handed.

So it is fair to say that George W. Bush has been victimized, at least up to a point. However, the episode reinforces doubts about his expertise on foreign policy already abroad in the political community if not the public at large. He is the candidate who has referred to Greeks as "Grecians," to Kosovars as "Kosovarians," and to the East Timorese as "East Timorians." He also has confused Slovakia and Slovenia.

He is also the candidate whose campaign chose to keep a lid on his academic record at Andover and Yale, suggesting something less than a magna cum laude performance.

All this has led to a rough consensus among political professionals that the only thing the Texas governor still must accomplish is convincing the electorate that he is bright enough, serious enough and competent enough to serve as president.

If he doesn't use the campaign debates to establish his personal gravitas, the theory goes, then he might be vulnerable to Sen. John S. McCain of Arizona despite Mr. Bush's staggering advantage in campaign money.

Popular pol

Mr. Bush has already shown that he is an engaging and amiable politician who comes through the television screens as a likeable public figure. And in Texas he has shown enough leadership to defeat a popular incumbent governor, Ann Richards, and then to win re-election with two-thirds of the vote.

But voters choosing a president are pickier than those electing a governor or a senator. When they are being presented someone new on the national scene, they seem to understand there are risks involved that might be serious.

It would not be surprising if they were made uneasy by a candidate who couldn't identify the prime minister of India.

So the pop quiz in Boston may have been a cheap shot, but it could have ripples down the line. As Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley said, "Politics ain't beanbag."

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

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