Advancing a Free Society

No Politician Left Behind

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s (R-MN) stunning gaffes over Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2007 executive order requiring all Texas girls to receive a vaccine against the human papillomavirus should further raise the odds against her longshot attempt to gain the GOP presidential nomination.  Although the incident will become merely a footnote to history, it raises a critical, broader issue: the importance of politicians’ judgement and insight – or lack thereof.

It's no wonder that pols, especially members of Congress, have so often been spoofed.  "Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress.  But I repeat myself," quipped Mark Twain.  Humorist Will Rogers addressed the consequences of these deficiencies: "When Congress makes a joke it's a law, and when they make a law, it's a joke."

There are innumerable examples of the joke being on us.  A friend of mine was seated at a banquet table with the family of then-Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kansas), who was later to become secretary of agriculture in the Clinton cabinet.  The family expressed relief at his having entered politics because none of them thought Dan was smart enough to enter the family business: auto shredding and scrap metal.  I attended a symposium that Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Virginia), then chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, addressed via teleconference.  As he recited from a prepared statement, he included the "stage instructions" – such as "Pause for emphasis" –  that had been inserted by his speechwriter.  And where one line inadvertently had been duplicated, Bliley read it a second time.

More recently, Congressman John Salazar (D-Colorado) related this anecdote: “You know, when I was debating what became the 2008 Farm Bill, I had a member of the Ag Committee actually ask me if chocolate milk really comes from brown cows.  I asked if he was joking and he assured me he wasn’t.”  A member of the Agriculture Committee?

Politicians constantly suffer from foot-in-mouth disease.  Consider these gaffes:

  • Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) proclaimed on the House floor last year that "victory had been achieved" by the United States in the Vietnam war and that, "[t]oday, we have two Vietnams; side-by-side, North and South, exchanging and working.  We may not agree with all that North Vietnam is doing, but they are living in peace."  The truth is, of course, that since the withdrawal of the United States in 1975 – three years after Lee graduated from college (with a degree in Political Science) -- what used to be North and South Vietnam have been united under a single communist government.

Rep. Lee is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

It was also Rep. Lee who during a visit to the Jet Propulsion Lab asked a NASA scientist whether the Mars Pathfinder probe had photographed the flag that astronaut Neil Armstrong had left behind in 1969.  Armstrong had, of course, left the flag on the moon, not Mars.  No manned spacecraft has visited Mars.

  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry himself doesn’t emerge from scientific and technological controversies unscathed.  He recently referred to evolution as a “theory that’s out there” that “has some gaps in it.”  Reminds me of the comment attributed to one of his predecessors, Texas Gov. “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961), who offered during a debate over bilingual education in the 1920s, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren.”

It’s no sin not to be a polymath but most of us who have spent time in Washington have noted politicians’ abject failure to know what they don’t know.  Psychiatrists call this lack of insight.

Are these aberrations stupidity, dementia or personality disorders?  To find out, shouldn’t there be some vetting or testing of people in, or who aspire to, critical governmental positions?  After all, we require bus drivers and hairdressers to prove their competence before they are permitted to ply their trades, and applicants to most police forces undergo psychological testing.

Maybe we should treat dissatisfaction with our representation as a medical, rather than a solely political, issue by asking candidates and incumbents to volunteer for periodic intelligence and mental status testing.  After all, we often demand to know whether a candidate has recovered from open-heart surgery, cancer or a stroke, and many states require elderly drivers to be re-licensed.  Isn’t control over the nation’s coffers and the responsibility for declaring and waging war as important as the ability to drive a car?

A mental status exam by an expert offers an assessment of cognitive abilities, memory and quality of thought processes.  It includes assessments of alertness; speech; behavior; awareness of environment; mood; affect; rationality of thought processes; appropriateness of thought content (presence of delusions, hallucinations, or phobias); memory; ability to perform simple calculations; judgement (“If you found a letter on the ground in front of a mailbox, what would you do with it?”); and abstract reasoning.

An intelligence test measures various parameters that are thought to correlate with academic or financial achievement.  Every legislator need not be a genius, but I’d like mine to be smarter than the average trash collector.

The journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken observed, “Congress consists of one third, more or less, scoundrels; two thirds, more or less, idiots; and three thirds, more or less, poltroons.”  Testing might help us to weed out a few idiots.  Getting rid of the scoundrels and poltroons will be more difficult.

(photo credit: Gage Skidmore)