Take-home test

Gov. Bush says he has been reading a biography of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Here's a reading comprehension exam for the GOP front-runner.

Published December 13, 1999 6:00PM (EST)

By now most of the politerati agree that the pop quiz about foreign leaders that George W. Bush failed was not a fair measure of his intellectual abilities. But the concern about whether he has the candle-power to be president lingers.

At the Dec. 2 debate in New Hampshire, Fox News Channel moderator Brit Hume asked Bush what he reads, and Bush cited a biography of Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state for President Harry Truman. His aides later identified the book as "Acheson: The Secretary of State Who Created the American World," by James Chace, a highly regarded expert on international affairs.

That's certainly egghead reading material. But at the next debate, when CNN's Judy Woodruff asked Bush what lessons he had drawn from Acheson's career in foreign affairs, he barely answered the question, offering only familiar bromides from his stump speech, such as "we must promote the peace" and "free trade brings ... hope and prosperity."

Moments later, Sen. John McCain, in a less than subtle dig, called attention to Bush's vacuous response by making a specific reference to Acheson: "When Dean Acheson walked into Harry Truman's office in June of 1950 and said, 'North Korea's attacked South Korea,' Harry Truman didn't take a poll. Harry Truman knew what we had to do."

Actually, according to Chace's book, Acheson phoned Truman, who was in Missouri, with the news, and it took Truman a full day to decide how to respond. But give McCain a B-minus for improvising an answer that placed Acheson, more or less, in his correct context.

Who would have guessed that Dean Acheson would be a campaign issue
28 years after his death? Luckily, Bush still has a chance to redeem himself on this front. Below is a pop quiz based on the Acheson biography. We invite the Texas governor to take the test (without, of course, looking at the answers that follow). If nothing else, a decent score would put to rest any doubts about Bush's reading comprehension skills.

Questioners in future debates should feel free to steal from the list that follows, as well.

1) When Acheson was a student at Yale, what was his grade point average?

2) To what was Acheson referring when he said he had visited "one of these mad and not a little degrading spectacles [and] nothing would induce me to do it again"?

3) In 1933, Acheson was appointed undersecretary of the Treasury to serve beneath Treasury Secretary William Woodin. How did Woodin obtain his position? How much banking experience did Woodin have? What did Woodin's appointment reveal about U.S. politics?

4) After falling out of favor with President Roosevelt, why did Acheson not ally himself with the Republican Party?

5) Of what job did Acheson say, "there is only one test -- who can best pilot the ship in ... crisis?"

6) According to Chace, what was Acheson's credo?

a) "I am ready to lead."

b) "Look at my record."

c) "Not compromise but decision."

d) "I want to accomplish something."

7) When President Harry Truman, 13 days after the death of President Roosevelt, was first informed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson about the secret project to build an atomic bomb, how long did the meeting last?

8) Whom did McGeorge Bundy, national security advisor to President John F. Kennedy, describe this way: "[He] seldom went beyond the counsel he had to choose from. He was not an initiator but a chooser; the buck stopped here, but he waited for the buck to arrive"? Hint: Keep your eye on the buck.

9) Explain the Bretton Woods agreements. Keep your answer to sound bite length.

10) True or false: When Truman in 1947 issued the Truman Doctrine, a challenge to Communism, and declared "it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures," he and Acheson meant this literally and intended to stick to these words regarding U.S. actions around the world.

11) Which of the following took the position in 1948 that the "United States has little strategic interest in maintaining the present troops and bases in Korea" and advised Washington to accept Soviet domination of Korea and send aid instead to "countries of greater strategic importance"?

a) the American Communist Party

b) Sen. Prescott Bush

c) Gen. Dwight Eisenhower

d) the New York Times editorial board

12) When confronted with a hard decision -- what to say about accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss, whose brother had been a law partner of Acheson -- did Acheson rely on advisors and consultants?

13) When Acheson spoke before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1950, he decried Sen. Joe McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunt and concluded his remarks on this subject with the words of poet John Donne: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore ..." Complete the quote Acheson used. (Hint: The lines do not rhyme.)

14. When Acheson briefed President-elect Eisenhower in 1952, what foreign policy problem did he have no solution for?

15) How did Acheson describe President Kennedy's Bay of Pigs operation against Cuba?

a) "poorly planned"

b) "worth trying"

c) "a bungled toy-soldier campaign mounted by a playboy"

d) "asinine"

16) During the Cuban missile crisis, the Pentagon proposed a strong military response that could have led to an invasion of Cuba. Why did that nearly lead to nuclear war?

17) What lesson of the Korean War did Acheson believe applied to the Vietnam

18) In 1967, Acheson, who was an informal advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson,
suspected he was not being provided accurate information about the war in
Vietnam, and he stormed out of a White House meeting with the president.
Afterward, a Johnson aide called Acheson and asked why he had left so
abruptly. What was Acheson's reply?

19) What books did Acheson like to read? You will receive extra credit for drawing lessons applicable to the present from any of them.

1) As Chace writes, "his grades rarely rose above a C average."

2) Political conventions.

3) Woodin, president of the American Car & Foundry Co., was appointed because he had contributed $10,000 to Franklin Roosevelt's campaign. He had no banking experience. The appointment showed that in politics, money talks and big-bucks contributors get paybacks from the politicians they fund.

4) Acheson objected to the Republican effort to red-bait FDR's New Deal by tagging it as communism. "It seems to me utterly fantastic to suggest," Acheson said, "that Communism is in any manner involved in this campaign. It serves only to arouse spirit of bigotry ... I am against any party which inflames this spirit."

5) The presidency.

6) c) "Not compromise but decision."

7) Fifteen minutes.

8) Harry Truman.

9) These international monetary accords, negotiated in 1944 in New Hampshire, established the economic and financial underpinnings of the postwar world and set up the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

10) False. Acheson shortly thereafter said the Truman administration was not committed to "an ideological crusade" everywhere around the world. Years later, he explained that in the early days of the Cold War such rhetoric was necessary because it was "clearer than the truth."

11) b) Eisenhower. Four years later, when Eisenhower was the Republican presidential nominee, Eisenhower opportunistically blasted Acheson and the Truman administration for inviting the attack on South Korea by putting it outside "America's so-called defensive perimeter."

12) No. He later said, "I felt that advisors were of no use and so consulted none. I understood that I had responsibilities above and beyond my own desires." When asked about Alger Hiss, Acheson referred to a New Testament passage calling for compassion and said, "I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss." He was vilified by political foes for this.

13) "... never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

14) Vietnam. At the time the French were trying to quell a
nationalist-communist movement there, and Acheson didn't believe the French could succeed.

15) d. "asinine." He thought Kennedy's obsession with Castro's Cuba was, Chace writes, "a distraction from the central strategic concerns of the United States."

16) The United States didn't know that Soviet troops stationed in Cuba possessed tactical nuclear weapons and were authorized to use them should the Americans invade. The presence of these weapons were not disclosed until 1993.

17) Distrust the predictions of the U.S. military.

18) "You can tell the president -- and you can tell him in precisely these words -- that he can take Vietnam and stick it up his ass."

19) Biographies of statesmen, such as Benjamin Disraeli. Fiction by Tobias Smollett and Charles Dickens. Books on the Civil War. And Thucydides' "Peloponnesian War."

By David Corn

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).

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Academia Brit Hume Cnn Communism Fox News George W. Bush North Korea Republican Party Texas The New York Times