HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

October 1, 2007
From Liberty Street

Mind and Public Service

John Turner


Our national media is remiss in many ways, but its most serious fault is the failure to examine the quality of mind exhibited by the men and women who aspire to national leadership. I confess, I'm uncertain what we have the right to expect from our officials. That, in itself, ought to be a topic of ongoing and vigorous debate. But surely there are some standards of thought and knowledge that should be applied to people who serve in the Congress, on the Supreme Court, in the president's cabinet, in the upper ranks of the military, and most of all in the presidency and vice-presidency.

When I say "standards," I am not referring to formal requirements like credentials, academic degrees, or completion of training programs. I mean simply the conclusion of the electorate, based on informed discussion, that a candidate has a mind of sufficient breadth and reach to analyze the problems and issues he or she will confront in office. There may be now an assumption that campaign debates tell the people about the intellect of the contenders and that the people take the quality of candidates' minds into account. But if there is such a belief, I think it's erroneous.

Suppose, for example, there were a leading candidate who had never heard of William Shakespeare, or who had never read nor seen one of Shakespeare's plays. Would that come out during a campaign? Probably not. Is it a condition of mind we should consider in placing a person in power? I think it is. Shakespeare is the primary writer of our language and our culture. If a person knew nothing of him, it would indicate indifference to explaining, protecting, or enhancing the culture the electorate has the right to see defended and purified. Certainly we know this: that if by accident a candidate showed he did not know who Shakespeare was, his candidacy would be instantly undermined.

I use an extreme example to make the point, but what can be inferred from an ignorance of Shakespeare could also be drawn to a lesser extent from a person's not knowing about Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, or Mark Twain, or Aristotle, or Plato, or Einstein, or Newton, or Thucydides, to name just a few figures who normally people the landscape of a mature person's mind.

Everyone has blank spots in his or her knowledge, subjects that ought to be familiar to anyone but, somehow, in the rush of life have been missed. We shouldn't get into the habit of trying to catch public figures up by finding one -- or even two or three --instances of such blanks. That would be merely nasty. But if a person who claims the right to lead not only shows thorough absence of mind, or absurd taste, about an entire range of knowledge but is pleased with the condition, it is appropriate to consider the lapse and give it considerable weight. And we're certainly not lacking for examples of that level of philistinism.

It has been said frequently over the past six years that the entire mind of George Bush is a wasteland. I don't know how fair the charge is. But I do think Mr. Bush has demonstrated enough indifference to the meaning of words to disqualify him, in a reasonable person's mind, from occupying the White House. No one who cares as little about meaning as Mr. Bush appears to ought to be trusted with decisions that cost lives. The electorate was more than remiss in its duty by failing to be concerned about that deficiency when Bush was a candidate for the presidency.

We now have a leading candidate who when asked to name his favorite novel came up with L. Ron Hubbard's Battleship Earth. It may not be reasonable to expect from presidential candidates a fine literary sensibility, but L. Ron Hubbard? Good God!  How could Mr. Romney not have known that Hubbard isn't even a third-rate writer of science fiction.  If Mitt really does like Battleship Earth more than any other novel he has read -- might it be the only one? -- he should have had the guile to conceal it from the public. After all, presidents do have to obfuscate skillfully now and then.

During an interview last March in Chicago, Peter Pace, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said this: "I do not believe the United States is well-served by a policy that says it is okay to be immoral in any way." He was referring to his stance on homosexuals in the military and his belief that homosexual acts are bad. In the way he discussed the issue, General Pace left no opening for the thought that his own notions of morality and immorality may not be universal. In truth, he gave the distinct impression that such an idea is inconceivable to him. Not did he give any indication that the strictures he received as a youth have occasioned any reconsideration in his maturity. Peter Pace comes across as a man who believes that rethinking anything is not to be done. He's not a model for suppleness of mind and yet he is a model, of sorts, for the kind of man we elevate to responsible positions.

Why do we the people of the United States not believe that strong and imaginative minds are desirable in our leaders? And why does the media not examine and question that propensity? If we knew the answers to those questions we would be much closer to formulating public policies that might actually serve us well.


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