A test for would-be presidents

Talk, talk, talk. Yes, the American political system affords lots of ways to size up would-be presidents, but what's missing is an objective gauge.

Caucuses, straw polls, primaries, super primaries, delegate counts, approval ratings, favorite sons, back-room deals, nominating conventions, formal debates, and talk-show "debates" ... they're all wrong. Instead, I say we should test, test, test.

In lieu of the final presidential debate next week, how about locking the candidates in a high school cafeteria for a day-long battery of exams. Enough of the canned speeches, scripted encounters with "real" people, and well-coached "spontaneous" exchanges.

Arm these guys with a few No. 2 pencils, and let's see how they measure up.

This solution makes perfect sense for candidates who are trying to prove their fitness to lead this country. After all, anyone who wants to drive a car, steer a ship, or pilot a plane (legally) has to pass a test. Before the government undertakes the construction of a new building, licensed architects compete for the job. And before they can submit plans and make presentations, they've been judged qualified to do so; they've had to pass a number of rigorous exams.

Presidential candidates speak of their plans for building a brighter future. Each of them speaks of being the architect of a stronger, more secure, and more prosperous country.

Well, shouldn't someone who's got designs on the White House have to pass some kind of exam before we turn them loose on the nation's infrastructure? Shouldn't they have to undergo a written stress test?

Here's my idea for an eight-part, eight-hour exam of each of the candidates:

Verbal section

Fifty fill-in-the-blank questions concerning noun-verb agreement, verb tense, and the placement of modifiers.

Fifty multiple-choice reading comprehension questions.

Fifty multiple-choice vocabulary questions.

Fifty fill-in-the-blank questions dealing with history and geography.

Two short essay questions (candidates may bring the Dr. Seuss edition of the "WTO Spelling Bee Primer and Multinational Grammar Workbook").

Two long essay questions (candidates may bring a Bible, but there will be lots of points taken off for quotations out of context).

Math section

Twenty multiple-choice questions about task analysis and problem-solving strategies (applicants may refer to conversion tables and amortization tables).

Fifty arithmetic questions (applicants may not use calculators or wear open-toe sandals. Applicants must show all work).

Extra credit

A science section consisting of fifty true-false questions about environmental concerns, genomes, disasters, quarks, and other nuclear stuff.

As long as we're at it, why not administer the same battery of exams to the leaders of the free world, the not-so-free world; to all manner of dictators, tyrants, and demagogues.

Camera lights and microphones give us all kinds of ways to get a sense of these guys. But we never really get to examine them - really examine them - with close encounters of the No. 2 pencil kind.

I wish the best of luck to all. I really do.

Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1994. He teaches writing at Quinnipiac University School of Law, in Hamden, Conn.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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