No, Our Wannabe Presidents Weren’t Always This Dim: Read My Lips

To lead America in an increasingly dangerous and complex world, voters might want to elect the person who knows that Telengana is a new state in India and that the proposed Grand Inga dam would be built on the Congo River.

That person is Karan Menon of New Jersey, who won the 2015 National Geographic Bee. Unfortunately for those who prefer to be led by the well-informed, he isn’t old enough to drive.

As for the group actually seeking the presidency at the moment, it might be surprising if some of them could name a river other than the Mississippi and a newly formed state other than Alaska. “Worldly-wise” isn’t a description that immediately springs to mind. If given a chance to bet on how many subscriptions to “Foreign Policy” there are in the bunch, go with the under.

Take Ben Carson. Clearly no dummy -- you don’t become a brain surgeon by enrolling at the University of Phoenix -- he’s purportedly been to 57 countries and likes to cite “just war theory” to sound knowledgeable about the globe.

Somewhat less sagely, the good doctor also forgot the Baltic nations are part of NATO, offered an implausible theory on how Osama bin Laden could have been stopped, and suggested that maybe the Palestinian territories could be relocated to Egypt, sorta the way the Colts slipped out of Baltimore in the dark of night.

“He’s a brilliant guy, but I don’t think he has a clue about what’s going on in the Mideast,” Lindsey Graham, who has a deep background in foreign affairs and less than 1 percent support in the polls, said of Carson, who’s flying high at 21 percent. (At least Graham is still fighting; another Republican who tried building a campaign on foreign policy know-how is now back home in Wisconsin, possibly plotting how to defend against an attack by Canada.)

The man Carson is chasing, Donald Trump, also clearly has smarts of some kind or another. (Right?) He certainly appears to be interested in Mexico, Mexicans and all things Mexicana.

But he plainly failed Hugh Hewitt’s Republican geopolitical pop quiz, poo-pooing not just the difference between Hamas and Hezbollah but also the value in clogging one’s brain with such trivia. (George W. Bush at least tried when confronted by a similar pop quiz in 1999, gamely guessing “General” when challenged to name “the general who is in charge of Pakistan.”) Trump’s major foreign-policy campaign proposal is to resurrect long-gone heroes to guide his national-security team.

Carly Fiorina says she is particularly qualified to lead the free world because she “conducted business and charitable work” with world leaders “for many years.”

Marco Rubio’s plan to get tough with Vladimir Putin boils down to “a few more targeted sanctions on Russia, a few more arms to Ukraine, and a few more troops in the Baltics,” writes an unimpressed Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University.

Bernie Sanders, possibly to justify his single-minded focus on domestic affairs, sees signs that Putin is welling up with regret over how belligerent he’s been. Jim Webb -- eh, never mind.

With such a vacuum of knowledge, it’s no wonder that Republican foreign-policy hands have found briefing candidates to be a full-time endeavor. This actually marks progress, at least when compared with the crash effort in 2008 to get Sarah Palin up to speed on world history and, well, the world itself.

Palin’s preferred method of study was the index card. During her schooling by McCain campaign advisers, Bloomberg’s John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote in “Game Change,” Palin “became obsessive, wanting to put every pertinent piece of information, including the names of world leaders, on separate cards. Soon enough, she had multiple towering stacks of cards, which she referred to constantly, sitting quietly and poring over them, lugging them back to her room to memorize late at night.”

Maybe presidential wannabes have always been light on worldly knowledge. Or maybe not.

Thomas A. Schwartz studies such matters as an historian of U.S. foreign relations and a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He says presidential candidates in decades past “were expected to know much more about foreign policy than today’s candidates,” mostly “because it was a life or death issue during the Cold War.”

Would-be presidents with little knowledge of -- or interest in -- the world “is a big problem,” Schwartz says. “In early American history, the first presidents were all people who were considered knowledgeable about foreign affairs. Our first five presidents were all people who had dealt with the British, had traveled. Adams and Jefferson had both been ambassadors, diplomats.”

These days, the pool of politicians most expert in foreign affairs are America’s 100 senators, who typically travel extensively, consider treaties and confirm ambassadors. And yet Americans prefer to pick governors, at least when they’re not partial to casino magnates or neurosurgeons.

At this rate, it will be encouraging to see a politician show even a shred of interest in one locale outside the U.S.

Except for Benghazi.

***

There are new recipients of the Vice President Gephardt Award, bestowed upon journalists and news outlets that are first, exclusive and utterly wrong in breaking big political news.

The award honors the memory of the New York Post’s famous front-page scoop that John Kerry had chosen Richard Gephardt to be his running mate in 2004. The Kerry-Gephardt ticket, you’ll recall, narrowly lost to the incumbent team of President George W. Bush and Vice President Bill Frist.

The latest winners include Ed Henry of Fox News, who tweeted on Monday, “Three sources close to @VP telling me he’s expected to announce he is running but the sources are all urging caution on 48-hr timeline.” Maybe they should have urged caution just in general.

Shortly before Henry’s big scoop, Congressman Brendan Boyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, had tweeted, “I have a very good source close to Joe that tells me VP Biden will run for Prez.” Boyle earned himself 877 retweets, a veritable Twitter jackpot, along with press coverage that most 38-year-old first-termers can only dream of.

Bill Kristol deftly filled in the key details on Tuesday: “Biden confirms to Obama at lunch today he’s running, announces at U Delaware tomorrow. You can feel the Joementum!”

Henry, Boyle and Kristol will receive their trophies in a ceremony in the Rose Garden, at the same podium that Biden used on Wednesday to declare that, no, he won’t be running for president after all.

***

Lincoln Chafee’s withdrawal leaves the Democratic presidential race without its leading voice for...what, exactly?

Surely the man from -- checking, it’s one of the small states; ah yes, Rhode Island -- surely the man from Rhode Island carved out a dominant topic or two in almost five months as a candidate.

He was, safe to say, the first candidate in a while to speak in favor of the metric system. He offered what may have been the most specific plan to make income taxes less flat. And with Chafee out of the race, who’s left for Edward Snowden to root for?

If this particular Lincoln has a legacy, it might be as a cautionary case study taught to high-school debate teams.

Which is something, at least.

(“Read My Lips” is a column dedicated to the proposition that men and women in a position of power, or the pursuit of it, will say or do things for which they will be sorry.)

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