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Commentary: A Better Way of Selecting Our Presidents

By Gary Earl Ross


Buffalo, NY – At last the primaries are underway in the longest presidential election cycle in U.S. history. Of course, it's far too early to tell who the nominees will be but after two terms of watching from the back of the bus as the Bush administration drove the country into a ditch the size of the Grand Canyon, I'd like to suggest a modest change in how we elect our presidents.

Let's turn the election into a complex job interview instead of a popularity contest predicated on clich s, catch phrases, sound bites, and lies. This idea is not so far-fetched. Most job applicants must prove themselves qualified. Sometimes competence is measured in a standardized test, like a bar exam. Sometimes ability is demonstrated in a simulation, like a pilot's flight trainer, or in supervised on the job training, like business internships, legal clerking, and student teaching.

Many places require potential teachers to lead a class or administrative assistants to prove typing speed or cooks to cook. Surgeons perform under the watchful eyes of other surgeons. Actors read for their parts. Plumbers, carpenters, and electricians serve apprenticeships. Even fast food workers must show they've learned how to immerse fries in a hot oil bath.

The presidency of the United States, arguably the most important job on planet Earth, may be the only non-entry level position anywhere that requires no specific training or demonstrated competence. It's time that changed.

I propose that all presidential hopefuls take a comprehensive examination designed by the wizards at Educational Testing Service. The Presidential Knowledge and Fitness Assessment (PKFA) would consist of several sections. Part I: 500 questions on grammar, spelling, literature, social studies, mathematics, and science. Part II: a complex personality profile. Part III: a polygraph exam. Thus would we eliminate those with limited language skills that reflect impaired thinking, critical ignorance of world history, economics, and the workings of science, abundant self-importance, uncompromising arrogance, and fundamental inclinations toward torture or deceit.

First round survivors would enter the simulation phase. Candidates would be required to spend 24 hours without sleep to oversee in real time a growing fantasy crisis simulcast on C-SPAN and the internet. The producers of 24 would lend the government Jack Bauer's thumping clock so those who fell asleep could zip back through their DVRs to the moment the candidate realized the Senegalese hostage crisis was not unfolding in Central America or loaded FEMA trucks couldn't reach their targets because roads were washed out. Below the clock would be graphs reporting the candidate's blood pressure, heart rate, and, most important, brain wave activity. Unable to manage the crisis? Goodbye.

Finally, there would be the internship phase. Second round survivors must spend 200 hours in the Oval Office, watching, listening, taking notes?and getting the President coffee when asked to do so. Each would be required not to speak unless spoken to, and whoever failed to fill at least ten notebooks with observations and ideas would be deemed unfit for the job. Afterward, in separate TV specials, each of the remaining few would be asked a single question? What did you learn? And given 90 minutes to answer. Only then, the profoundly incompetent having been eliminated, would the primaries begin.

Unwieldy? Maybe, but the PKFA would be infinitely more revealing than watching candidates sling mud, change long-held positions to appeal to myopic fringes, trade jokes with Leno and Letterman, and scarf down pancakes in counties they will never visit again.

For too long we have accepted the notion that politics is a dirty business capable of making the strangest bedfellows. Whoever's in the bed, it's time we changed the sheets.

Listener-Commentator Gary Earl Ross is a writer and a professor at UB's Educational Opportunity Center.

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