No one likes pop quizzes, especially candidates for public office. And if you’re running for president, no surprise test is more irksome than the foreign affairs exam. Who’s the president/prime minister/ruler of [obscure yet important country]? What is your view of the [doctrine du jour], and how would you change it? The burden is especially heavy on Republicans. They are the strong-on-defense, keep-America-safe party, after all. But something has changed since then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush flunked an on-camera quiz in 1999. The shame of not knowing or not caring that one doesn’t know no longer exists.
Bush was the front-runner for the Republican nomination when he sat down with Boston television reporter Andy Hiller. “George W. Bush has money, momentum and charisma. If he has an Achilles heel, it’s foreign policy, where his experience is limited,” Hiller wrote at the time. “So that’s what I wanted to talk about with him today — to see if questions about world hot spots put him on a hot seat.” He asked Bush to name the leaders of four hot-spot nations in the news at the time: Chechnya, Taiwan, India and Pakistan.
Hiller: “Can you name the president of Chechnya?”
Bush: “No, can you?”
Hiller: “Can you name the president of Taiwan?”
Bush: “Yeah . . . Wait a minute . . . Is this 50 questions?”
Hiller: “No, it’s four questions of four leaders of four hot spots.”
Bush: “The new Pakistani general — just been elected — he’s not been elected — the guy took over office ... it appears he’s going to bring stability to the country, and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent.”
Hiller: “And you can name him?”
Bush: “General, I can name the general ...”
Hiller: “And it’s ...”
Hiller: “And the Prime Minister of India?”
Bush: “The new prime minister of India is ... uh ... No.
Can you name the foreign minister of Mexico?”
Hiller: “No sir, but I would say to that I’m not running for president.”
Bush: “I understand. But the point is, if what you’re suggesting is ... What I’m suggesting to you is that if you can’t name the foreign minister of Mexico, therefore you’re not capable of what you do, but the truth is you are ... whether you can or not.”
Sure, Bush was testy and defensive right off the bat. But there was something else notable about his responses. He tried to answer the questions, which bespeaks a respect for the office and voters. Herman Cain, the front-runner for the GOP nomination in many polls, is a different story. He couldn’t care less.