Johnson 'Aleppo' gaffe shows need to weed unqualified candidates
© Moriah Ratner

When asked what he’d do about the situation in Aleppo last Thursday, Gary JohnsonGary Earl JohnsonOn The Trail: Making sense of Super Poll Sunday Polarized campaign leaves little room for third-party hopefuls The Memo: Trump retains narrow path to victory MORE, the Libertarian nominee for president, stunned the hosts of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" when he replied, “And what is Aleppo?” After Mike Barnicle, the MSNBC commentator with the audacity to ask such an esoteric question, realized Mr. Johnson was not joking, he quickly brought the presidential candidate up to speed.   

To be fair, Johnson is under an inordinate amount of stress and shouldn’t be expected to never misspeak, but this was not a venial mental lapse. Had it been, Mr. Johnson would’ve instantly cut his hosts off after they began to explain that Aleppo is a city in Syria; he did not. Johnson’s insouciance was difficult to watch, but it would be unfair to only point the finger at him.


Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpUSAID administrator tests positive for COVID-19 Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year DOJ appeals ruling preventing it from replacing Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation lawsuit MORE, the current Republican nominee, was stumped during a GOP debate earlier this year when he was asked to prioritize our nuclear triad; as Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulLoeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection Rick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Overnight Defense: Formal negotiations inch forward on defense bill with Confederate base name language | Senators look to block B UAE arms sales | Trump administration imposes Iran sanctions over human rights abuses MORE said, he had “no clue”. However, it’s not only this year’s presidential candidates who are lacking basic knowledge in international affairs. In 2008, Katie Couric asked Sarah Palin what newspapers/magazines she read in order to stay abreast on international and domestic affairs – she couldn’t name one. Palin was nearly a single heartbeat away from being the leader of the free world.

In response to his now infamous Aleppo gaffe, Johnson explained how there “were many things” he didn't know off the top of his head when he served as governor, but by surrounding himself “with the right people," he "succeeded." "That would begin, clearly, with daily security briefings that, to me, will be fundamental to the job of being president."

But daily presidential briefings are meant to provide the president with classified information on how far along country X is with regards to its nuclear weapons program, not enlighten the Commander in Chief on where Aleppo is. A truly qualified presidential candidate wouldn’t wait to become president to begin learning such rudimentary knowledge.

Still, I blame the system, not any of these candidates. So how can we change it? 

Considering 30 percent of workers in the U.S. need a license in order to perform their job (electricians, hairstylists, lawyers, et. al.), it’s understandable why some have questioned the logic behind having just three requirements for the most important job in the world (he or she must be at least thirty-five years of age, a resident within the United States for fourteen years, and a natural born citizen).

However, it would be unwise to require presidential candidates to have a specific degree (political science) or have obtained a certain level of education (completed a graduate program). After all, three of the top ten ranked presidents (Lincoln, Truman, and Washington) never received a college degree.

Others have proposed that in order to run for president, candidates ought to have held select positions (senator, vice president, etc.) within the U.S. government for X amount of years. While those who have no previous work experience in government are unlikely to win the presidency, such a requirement could potentially disallow the next great president from taking office for obvious reasons. What do we do?

An examination. I propose that before any individual can officially run for president of the United States, he or she must pass a comprehensive exam that would cover everything from past and present economic crises, foreign leaders, wars, trade deals, the constitution, and yes, even basic geography. The world’s most expensive test would be offered once a year with the questions changing each year.

For example, the 2016 version of the exam may ask where Aleppo is while the 2017 version could ask where Muscat is. Those who fail the exam (it would be a pass or fail score) must wait four years before retaking the exam. Passing such an extensive exam would make it impossible for a candidate to claim they thought classification markings before paragraphs were meant to organize messages in alphabetical order.  

When I decided to apply to graduate school after having worked for four years, I had to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) — this required me to brush up on mathematical concepts I hadn’t studied since high school. Although annoyed, I never thought twice about it; this was what I needed to do in order to get in to a top program.

I’d imagine that anyone who genuinely wants to become the next president of the United States (as opposed to just adding “former presidential candidate” to their resume) would also be willing to put in the time to study and pass this test. Once they did, the American people could focus on judging the candidate’s trustworthiness, interpersonal skills, equanimity, etc. without wondering whether the candidates are merely regurgitating what their advisors, aides, and speechwriters told them.

Requiring all hopeful presidential candidates to pass a tough exam before entering the race would help prohibit truly unqualified candidates from ever getting close to the oval office. While Palin didn’t become vice president (she was close) and Trump and Johnson are unlikely to win this year’s election (they certainly could), I worry that the longer we continue to allow unfit presidential candidates from entering the races, eventually the bullet will be in the chamber. What say you?

Bill Ozanick is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.  He can be followed on Twitter @BillOzanick.


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