Have you ever gone to class unprepared and been surprised by a pop quiz, and then scored only 25 percent? Imagine if that embarrassing performance
made the front pages.
When Andy Hiller, the political correspondent for
WHDH-TV in Boston, had George W. Bush in front of a camera on Wednesday, he asked the
Texas governor if he could name the president of Chechnya. Bush could not.
Nor could he name the general who recently took power in Pakistan or the new
prime minister of India. Bush only answered one of the four questions correctly
when he identified the president of Taiwan as “Lee.”
What made the Q&A worse for Bush was that he responded to the questions with petulance. Rather than
explaining that he is a big-picture guy and calmly providing a strategic vision of U.S.
foreign policy concerning these areas, he shot back at the reporter.
“Can you name the foreign minister of Mexico?” Bush asked, apparently proud that he knew the
answer. Hiller reasonably replied that he was not the one running
Bush’s session with Hiller reinforced the notion that he is not ready
for prime time. He may not even be ready for a debate. And his campaign staff
seemed to be in a similar position. When Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes
attempted to defend her boss following the Hiller interview, she said that
neither the Bush campaign’s senior foreign policy advisor, Josh Bolton, nor
foreign policy advisor Joel Shinn could name all four of these world
Perhaps it’s not fair to expect a governor to know these people by name.
While Al Gore and Bill Bradley, both brainiacs, probably could rattle off the
names, most congressmen and senators would not score 100 percent on this
test. But you would expect a presidential candidate (especially one with a deficit in foreign-policy experience) to hire people who could identify such
But here was Hughes practically bragging that Bush’s foreign-policy
team is as clueless as he is. What’s most revealing about this incident is that a Bush spokeswoman would think it a good idea to protect Bush by citing the ignorance of his advisors. Just as it
had done so during the cocaine snafu, the Bush campaign staff seemed unable
to deal with a controversy without inflicting further damage. The Republican
establishment, which has placed a lot of money on this untested horse, has
good reason to be nervous.
The average voter may not give a hoot that a governor
running for president cannot I.D. a handful of foreign leaders. (Or that Bush
earlier confused Slovakia and Slovenia and called Kosovars “Kosovarians,”
Greeks “Grecians” and East Timorese “East Timorians.”)
And if you were a
presidential candidate and had to choose between the week Bush had and the
week Alpha-Beta Gore had, you’d pick Bush’s in a flash. But the pop quiz
probably will have an effect on the media covering the race. It is further proof
that Bush is a candidate who has trouble answering tough questions. That
should have reporters drooling over the opportunity to grill the man.
It’s not just his foreign policy that ought to be examined. On a
recent jaunt through New Hampshire, Bush was asked how rural areas could be
economically revived and whether the Internet might play a role in a revival.
“The nature of the new economy is going to create all
sorts of interesting opportunities and problems,” Bush mused. “The interesting opportunities
are, capital will move freely when we’re a global nation in a global world.
We’re a nation in a global world. The ability to communicate — and capital to
move quickly because of the new economy — is changing the nature of the
Has he been taking lessons from Dan Quayle? His response was a
collection of buzz phrases that, strung together, meant nothing. His response was even more alarming than his inability to navigate Hiller’s test. After all, as
governor of Texas, he can be expected to have a few ideas about economic
development in rural areas.
Bush has a good smile, a warm personality. He’s been a champ at raising
money and bagging political endorsements. These are all good traits for a
candidate and have endeared him to the Republican establishment. But few
people — few voters, few reporters — have seen him forced to think on his feet
about difficult subjects.
There are lots of questions that would be fun to
watch him try to answer. Gov. Bush, can you tell us the status of the
latest round of nuclear weapons talks between the United States and Russia?
Can you explain China’s importance in the next round of global-warming negotiations? How much does NATO expansion cost the U.S.
taxpayer? What are the effects of third-world debt on public
health in Africa?
Bush, who pulled a C average at Yale, clearly is not a homework type of
guy. He will not dazzle voters with his mastery of subjects from A
to Z, as President Clinton once did. But Bush has to show he can effectively
compensate for his less-than-stunning intellectual powers, and his campaign
has to demonstrate it can competently manage hot spots. So far, neither test
has been passed.
David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).More David Corn.