Quizzing candidates with real questions

Rather than test presidential candidates factual knowledge, we need an examination of their critical thinking skills.

November 16, 1999|By David Boldt

ANDY HILLER, the Boston television reporter who gave GOP presidential hopeful George W. Bush a pop quiz on the leaders of obscure little countries and one rebellious province, had the germ of a good idea -- but it needs improvement.

The American people are desperate to get evidence of a presidential contender's qualifications beyond what they get from sound bites, stump speeches and news of what Naomi Wolf (or whoever) has told the candidate to wear.

Mr. Hiller's approach, however, would convert the campaign into a lengthy game of Trivial Pursuit. Do we really want the candidates spending long periods memorizing the names of national leaders, state capitals, river systems and the like? I think not.

Rather than test presidential candidates factual knowledge, we need an examination of their critical thinking skills and a Political Testing Service (PTS) that would develop a multiple-choice test to be known as the Presidential Aptitude Test (PAT).

History's lessons

It would present the candidates disguised versions of crises that have faced leaders in the past and ask how they would handle them. An example may help:

1. A venerable but decaying European nation has offended the United States in a variety of ways, including repressive policies toward a revolutionary movement among its subjects. The situation was exacerbated when that country's ambassador, not realizing his microphone was open, referred to you, the U.S. president, as a "pusillanimous twit" during a nationally televised talk show.

Meanwhile, in the same European nation, a U.S. heavy bomber on a training mission crashes. While all available evidence indicates it was an accident, the American public, bored by several decades of peace and egged on by the sensation-seeking news media, wants retribution.

The United States presents this nation a list of demands, every one of which is acceded to. Do you: A. Thank the foreign government for its cooperative (not to say servile) attitude and forget the whole thing, thereby pleasing the American business community, which is scared to death of any crisis that might disrupt the economic boom?

B. Issue a sharp reprimand, including (as a sop to American public opinion) assorted slurs degrading the moral character and productivity of the other nation's citizenry?

C. Declare war on the other nation, sink its navy and seize all the territory we want to get our hands on?

The correct answer, as any serious student of the Spanish-American War will have recognized by now, is C. Certainly President William McKinley and his able Secretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt, got it right at the time, and the result was a U.S. triumph.

Besides testing the strategic acumen of the candidates, the test could probe their psyches about vexing dilemmas involving their own physical or mental health. Let's try another:

2. As president, you find yourself at times in the grip of long melancholy moods, which you refer to as "The Black Dog." You frequently imagine your own death and dream about your own funeral. Do you: A. Resign? B. Turn over power temporarily to your vice president and seek psychiatric help? C. Ignore the problem and go about your business?

Once again, C is the correct answer. The scenario represents a composite of Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, two leaders historians generally rate as having done pretty well despite their periods of depression.

A few questions at the end might deal with situations that have not been tested by history, such as:

3. Several nations have developed nuclear weapons with which they are threatening other countries, and, potentially, the United States. As president, would you: A. Urge these rogue nations to sign a nonverifiable, unenforceable test-ban treaty? B. Not only do A but also try to get the U.S. Senate to ratify the same treaty? C. Inform the leaders of the offending nations that if they don't turn over all existing nuclear weapons and destroy the production facilities, America will nuke their sorry countries back into the Stone Age?

There is, of course, no right answer here. The PTS would simply release the candidate's responses, and let the public make up its own mind.

However, it's worth noting that option C could someday be known as the Buchanan Doctrine.

David Boldt is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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