What candidates should know (11/20/2011)

What should a candidate for the presidency really know? This old question, suitable for both the tentativeness of a college essay exam and the resolute nature of an ale house debate, reflects the need for preparation. While very funny, Woody Allen’s line that “90 percent of success is just showing up,” doesn’t apply to presidential politics.

The question of requisite knowledge has been resurrected, thanks to Herman Cain’s fumble of a question tossed to him by a reporter who wondered whether Cain agrees with President Barack Obama’s policy in Libya. This wasn’t a question about the name of a president in an obscure country. No, this one took dead aim at a subject that has been on the front pages of newspapers across America for weeks on end.

Cain should have been able to spell out a difference or two, satisfying the public’s expectations that he possessed at least a passing acquaintance with Obama’s policies in Libya.

For instance, he might have criticized the president, as Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain had, for moving too slowly. Or, he might have said that the president should not have turned over decision-making responsibility to foreign nations.

Cain’s lapse was hardly attributable to political concerns at the center of international politics, the sort that left President Gerald Ford tied in knots when, in the course of a debate in 1976 with his Democratic rival, Jimmy Carter, he was asked whether Poland was dominated by the Soviet Union. Ford’s answer cost him dearly. He replied that Poland was a sovereign, independent nation that was not under the thumb of the Soviets. Why had Ford failed to state the obvious, that Poland certainly was repressed by the Russians? He was caught between that geopolitical reality and the political need, in a tight election race, to avoid offending Polish voters in America who emphatically denied that their brave countrymen were being pushed around by the Russian Bear. Many observers agreed that Ford’s gaffe severely damaged his campaign for the presidency.

Cain’s gaffe hardly reflected a political conundrum. It smelled, rather, of a lack of preparation. In this regard, his fumble recalled both Rick Perry’s inability to remember the third department of government that he would eliminate if elected to the presidency, and Michelle Bachmann’s mistaken impression that the Founding Fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery.

Nobody expects candidates for high office to resemble walking encyclopedias. In fact, encyclopedic knowledge doesn’t guarantee success in the White House. But it is fair to expect those who would become president to possess a working knowledge of key international events, just as it is fair to expect candidates to recall their own platform and, at least, a working knowledge of critical themes in American history.