MEDFORD, Mass. -- Recently, when Texas Gov. George W. Bush failed a little pop quiz on foreign affairs thrown at him by a Boston reporter, it was widely regarded as a gimmicky cheap shot. But Mr. Bush's failure nevertheless fanned questions about his qualifications in the foreign-policy field.
His political strategists immediately swung into action, producing a major foreign-policy speech that won modest praise for their candidate as he laid down a basically conservative line on how he would conduct U.S. international affairs. The governor followed with a solo appearance on NBC News' "Meet the Press" that won generally good marks for his answers on a range of foreign-policy questions of greater substance.
Another presidential candidate, Democrat Bill Bradley, pointedly stated in the wake of Mr. Bush's muffing of the pop quiz that he was not going to respond to any such shallow interrogation. Anybody can fail any test on trick or obscure matters, he observed correctly. The measure of a candidate's ability in the foreign-policy field, he said, was the positions he espoused and how he would carry them out as president.
But Mr. Bradley clearly has no intention of leaving any impression that he is short-suited in foreign policy. He came to the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University here the other day geared to take on serious questions -- after first stating that if he got any queries he considered "stupid" he would just wave them off.
Mr. Bradley then proceeded to respond to a series of weighty foreign-policy inquiries from deadly earnest graduate students on a range of issues: how to reduce the Russian nuclear stockpile, how to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute over Jerusalem, China's admission to the World Trade Organization, the state of the Russian economy, the influx of drugs from Colombia and U.S. interventionism in global trouble spots.
His answers were repetitions of positions he had taken before and by and large were what was to be expected from a moderately liberal Democrat. A final inquiry about whether he agreed with a Clinton administration denial of Israel's desire to install certain defensive weaponry on its aircraft drew a dodge from Mr. Bradley on grounds he didn't know enough about it. Even that non-answer seemed to sit well with the audience.
A Fletcher professor, Hurst Hannum, said of Mr. Bradley's performance: "I have to assume that one of the main purposes was to show that he was comfortable with foreign policy, and I think he succeeded very well. For presentation, I would give him a solid A minus." Not only was Mr. Bradley at ease giving answers, Mr. Hannum noted, "he was willing to say what he didn't know, which was refreshing. One can't get the sense yet what his foreign policy objectives are out of one speech, but I think he would be pleased with the way things went. This is a pretty tough audience potentially."
Compared to Mr. Bush's earlier foreign-policy comments that made him sound like "a unilateralist" in foreign affairs, the Fletcher professor said, Mr. Bradley came off to him as more of "a multilateralist" who would seek to engage other nations, directly and through the United Nations, in cooperative endeavors.
The Clinton-Gore administration, he said, started out in that vein "but then abandoned it . . . Bradley seems to be pushing more in that direction. I get a sense from Bradley, and I'm still a bit open on it, that he actually would like to hear what other countries think, that the U.S. may not always have the right answer the first time. And that sort of humility on foreign policy was somewhat impressive."
That posture certainly has been a centerpiece of Mr. Bradley's pitch as a candidate all year -- that he doesn't have all the answers and is willing to listen to what others have to say. Mr. Bush for one has not had much success with it. It may not work across the board for Mr. Bradley either, but it seemed to play with the assembled foreign-policy heavy thinkers here.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.