One version of the old joke goes like this:
St. Peter, seeking to cut down on his workload as celestial dean of admissions, decides to ask each newly arrived soul a single question, the correct answer to which will allow the applicant to pass through the Pearly Gates.
The first applicant, a WASP, is asked to identify a major disaster from the year 1912. "The sinking of the Titanic," he answers, and is admitted.
The second, a Catholic, is asked to estimate the human cost of the disaster. "Approximately 1,500 men, women and children lost their lives." he said. "Close enough," says St. Peter, who then turns to the third applicant, a black man, and says:
Another version has journalist George F. Will asking Jesse Jackson, the black presidential candidate: "As president, would you support measures such as the G-7 measures in the Louvre accords?"
"Explain that," Jackson responded, whereupon Albert Gore, like Jackson, a guest on ABC-TV's "This Week," leans over and offers to bail Jackson out.
Jackson says Will's question, "phrased in the language of a specialized subculture, was, like St. Peter's, designed not to elicit his monetary views but to flunk him.
"I thought it was similar to his treatment of Reagan when he helped prepare Reagan for the debates and then praised him for his performance. I have no basis for challenging Gore's integrity, but it is not beyond George Will to help tutor people he likes and then show his face as an objective journalist. And he has said that Gore is his favorite Democratic candidate."
Will said subsequently that he had never talked to Gore about G-7 and the Louvre accords, the exchange-rate stabilization policy adopted in Paris a year ago by the group of seven major economic powers. He also pointed out that he had put two other questions to Jackson that day, one rebutting the candidate's contention that American workers had lost jobs to overseas industries, the other challenging a Jackson statement on military expenditures.
But wouldn't he acknowledge that the G-7 question was calculated less to elicit information than to expose ignorance? "That's information, too," said Will, who has sought to make the point that Jackson, because he is black, is treated more gently by the media than other presidential candidates.
"People who say the reason Jackson cannot be elected is that he is black," Will wrote in a subsequent syndicated column, "should ask themselves this: How many candidates spout Third World rhetoric and fraternize with anti-American dictators and terrorists and then do well in presidential politics? Being black is his advantage as a professional campaigner."
If Jackson enjoys a racial advantage, it is the predisposition of black voters to favor a black candidate, not any obvious kid-gloves media treatment of his candidacy. Indeed, compared with the hoopla over Dan Rather's "unfair" questioning of Vice President George Bush, the press has been pretty much silent regarding the G-7 affair -- notwithstanding that probably not two voters in a hundred could have answered the question or even identified the subject area to which it referred.
But don't voters expect a presidential candidate to be more conversant than they with the arcana of monetary policy? Maybe, maybe not. Ronald Reagan's ignorance of details hardly hurt him with the electorate, and Jimmy Carter's knowledge of detail may actually have helped to convey the image of a man overly concerned with nuts and bolts.
Still, the journalist's role is to ask the detailed questions, leaving it to the voters to decide whether the candidate's inability to give detailed answers is disqualifying. So far as I know, the rap on Will is not that he asked tough questions but that the purpose of the G-7 question, like the question Rather put to Bush, seemed to be to embarrass the candidate rather than to flesh out his policy position.
"Its clumsy wording," said a Jackson adviser, "suggests that the eloquent Mr. Will labored to invent a question purposefully obscured with technical shorthand to spring on Mr. Jackson on a Sunday morning talk show."
Which is precisely how it appeared to me.