On the eve of the first 1992 presidential debate, the incumbent president, George Bush, armed himself with a list of one-line "zingers" to put down his Democratic rival, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, for what was presumed to be his lack of foreign-policy knowledge.
The list of zingers, four pages of which were released recently by the National Archives under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), never proved useful against the surprisingly well-informed Clinton. Ironically, however, it may now end up embarrassing the former president's son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, instead.
The younger Bush has stumbled repeatedly in his statements about foreign policy. He has called Kosovars "Kosovians," Greeks "Grecians," and mixed up Slovenia with Slovakia. Most recently, of course, he failed a surprise quiz from a reporter who asked him to identify the leaders of four current international hot spots. Bush got only one right.
Later, in his own defense, Gov. Bush told ABC's Sam Donaldson that "America
understands that a guy doesn't know the name of every single foreign leader."
But Bush's father took a much less generous view toward then-Gov. Bill
Clinton's inexperience in foreign affairs back in 1992. Bush had his staff prepare a long list of anti-Clinton zingers for possible use in their first debate on Oct. 11, 1992, or for later in the campaign.
"If Clinton seems perplexed by [a] foreign affairs question," the zinger
script suggested that President Bush hit Clinton with this comment: "Now I
know what to get you for Christmas -- a world globe."
Another planned Bush riposte to an expected Clinton stumble during the presidential debates was: "If you ever go on 'Jeopardy,' don't choose the category, 'Foreign Heads of State.'"
The partial zinger script was released under FOIA as part of a request I filed for documents from the so-called Passportgate investigation, a special-prosecutor inquiry into the Bush administration's suspicious search of Clinton's passport files before the 1992 election.
The pages released were included because some of the jokes
related to Clinton's foreign travels to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
while Clinton was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. Viewing the jokes as possible
evidence of White House coordination with the State Department's passport
search, the special prosecutor's office questioned Bush about the zingers after
the president left office.
Ultimately, no criminal charges were brought in the passport case. But the
investigative files offer a rare look at the inner strategies of the Bush
reelection campaign as it tried desperately to close Clinton's lead in the
polls in 1992.
Though Bush never was able to use the zingers in the debates, he did deliver other derogatory comments about the lack of foreign-policy expertise of the Democratic ticket, Bill Clinton and Sen. Al Gore. Most famously, Bush declared at one campaign stop, "My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos."
Besides foreign policy, the Bush zinger list included jokes about Clinton's avoidance of military service in Vietnam, which is also a possible sore point for Gov. Bush, who escaped duty in the Vietnam War by landing a prized spot in the Texas National Guard -- a position reportedly given him at the request of a well-placed political friend of his father's.
On the topic of Clinton's draft avoidance, the zinger list offered President Bush several options:
"During the war, Waldo played 'Where's Bill,'" read one prepared joke.
Another went: "Put it this way -- Vietnam Vets don't collect Bill Clinton trading cards."
Still another: "At Oxford, the governor experienced pre-traumatic stress syndrome."
Or another: "Mr. Clinton was going through a mid-war crisis."
One joke would have been spoken personally to Clinton: "Ever wake up in the middle of the night with Oxford flashbacks?"
But the zingers that could backfire the worst on Gov. Bush today are the ones scripted for his father to humble then-Gov. Clinton over his supposed ignorance of basic world knowledge.
"The Governor's a little light on geography," one of the Bush zingers observed. "He probably has trouble refolding a map of Arkansas."
"The Governor does have some foreign experience," another zinger read. "We know he's been to Moscow."
Ironically, too, a couple of zingers sought to portray Clinton's inexperience unfavorably in comparison with Gore's foreign-policy knowledge. These zingers now read like unintended endorsements of Gore, the Democratic front-runner in the 2000 campaign, who may well end up facing Gov. Bush in the general election.
To zing Clinton if he was struggling with a foreign-policy point, Bush was scripted to ad-lib, "Al Gore can't help you now."
Another comment would have asked voters: "On the campaign trail when the Governor's asked a question, notice how he always turns to Al Gore for help. Will Al Gore have to chaperone him to summit meetings?"
In campaign 2000, young Gov. Bush has argued that a president is responsible only for sketching the big picture on foreign policy and that he has plenty of aides to fill in the details. So sometime over the next year, his father might be called on to explain whether he still thinks that it's vital for a president to have a wealth of international knowledge at his own fingertips.
Or maybe President Bush should think about buying his own son a world globe for Christmas. After all, in politics, often what goes around, comes around.