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There is no doubt about it. U.S. presidential hopeful George W. Bush handed his rivals some welcome ammunition last week when he flubbed that pop quiz. Asked to identify the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, Pakistan and India, a stunned Mr. Bush could only come up with “Lee” for Taiwan and (an admittedly brilliant) “General” for Pakistan. Luckily, the reporter did not ask the possible next president of this country’s most important ally to name the Japanese prime minister.

Compounding his embarrassment, Mr. Bush later huffed that even his foreign-policy advisers didn’t know all the answers. Perhaps he thought that would reassure voters and mollify the inhabitants of those four remote and obscure places, along with the Grecians, Kosovarians and East Timorians he has recently invoked. (Who said he never discussed foreign policy?) The memories come flooding back: President Gerald Ford insisting in 1976 that Poland was not under Soviet control. Vice President Dan Quayle, remarking after a tour of Latin America, “The only regret I have is that I didn’t study Latin harder in school so I could converse with those people.” Vice President Al Gore assuring the Institute of World Affairs that “we can all be ‘e pluribus unum’ — out of one, many.” (What is it about vice presidents and Latin?) President Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum, covering a multitude of slipups: “Facts are stupid things.”

The question is, does this kind of ignorance matter? Mr. Bush’s failure has sparked quite a debate in the United States. Some — perhaps remembering his own father’s criticism of Mr. Gore and President Bill Clinton during the 1992 campaign: “My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than those two bozos” — insist that a grasp of foreign affairs is central to a presidential candidate’s credibility. (The senior Bush has been silent on this latest bozoism.)

Others say such quizzes prove little about a candidate’s capacity for leadership. Look at President Jimmy Carter, the argument goes: A master of detail, as chief executive he failed to see the forest for the trees. Mr. Reagan, on the other hand, perhaps saw nothing but the forest, yet his presidency has generally been deemed a success. Interestingly, Mr. Clinton himself has come to Mr. Bush’s defense, observing mildly that he would quickly learn the names of foreign leaders if he were president. No doubt he also shares the feeling expressed on both sides of the political fence that the quiz was something of an ambush, staged by reflexively adversarial media.

It is true, as the Democrats point out, that what Mr. Bush didn’t know was hardly arcane: A daily glance at the front pages of this month’s newspapers would have given him the information. Yet it is probably also true that the vast majority of Americans themselves neither know nor care who those four leaders are. If the polls are correct, most of them don’t even know who their own congressmen are.

What they do know, however, is when a man is being made a fool of, and this will likely prove the most burdensome legacy of last week’s fiasco for Mr. Bush. Nobody expects Thomas Jefferson, but American voters and foreign observers alike do expect of the U.S. president at least the semblance of authority and dignity. These qualities have certainly been undermined, as far as the present administration is concerned, by Mr. Clinton’s record of recklessness and untruthfulness; yet the man still, incredibly, commands a certain tattered respect. It is politically more damaging, it seems, to appear ridiculous than to appear mendacious, and ridicule is what Mr. Bush came dangerously close to courting last week.

The ghost of Mr. Quayle haunts every American presidential candidate. Whenever a sentence is mangled or a fact skewed, the voting public shudders, remembering the nation’s loopiest elected official since Mr. Spiro Agnew. Mr. Bush invoked that ghost this week, as much by his vacuity as by his ignorance. Comparing the quiz to his recent close encounter with a truck while out jogging, he said, peculiarly, “You know, the guy never hit me with the garbage truck either.”

One is immediately reminded of Mr. Quayle in 1989, attempting to paraphrase the motto of the United Negro College Fund (“A mind is a terrible thing to waste”). “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind,” he said. “Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” At the time, the public naturally took this remark as self-defining.

Mr. Bush should be very careful not to give any more grounds for the suspicion that he shares that kind of mindlessness. However, as Mr. Quayle is also reported to have said, “It is hard for the tiger to change his spots.”

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