Sen. Hillary Clinton's strained campaign didn't need any more embarrassing moments, but she brought another one to it during last week's debate. When asked about Vladimir Putin's chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, Clinton tripped over his last name — twice. She finally settled on "whatever." While it didn’t necessarily hurt the Democratic senator from New York's chances of swaying voters, it didn’t help, either.
Now, there is nothing inherently difficult in pronouncing “Medvedev,” and the real reason Clinton had trouble was that she wasn’t quite sure what his name was. It’s not like she was asked to identify the president of Finland or the capital of Burkina Faso. This is the guy who will run Russia.
There's a lot to know these days, and perhaps we shouldn’t expect all our public figures to know them. But Clinton wants to be president; she should know all about this man. We can speculate how Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., would have done had he been in the same situation, and some have surmised that he wouldn’t have done much better. For that matter, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., may not have, either.
Candidates rely on staff members to keep them informed, and if there is anybody to blame, those staff members are good places to start. One would expect that Clinton’s staff would find value in her knowing Medvedev’s name, whether or not she was about to be grilled by NBC newsman Tim Russert.
Uncertainty resides among the candidates
The exchanges about al-Qaida between Obama and McCain are equally as revealing. Obama said that although he intended to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, he’d be quick to send them back there if al-Qaida were operating in Iraq. That prompted McCain to engage in a bit of theatrical sarcasm, reminding everyone that al-Qaida is already there. At a loss for something substantive to say on the subject, Obama responded by saying that the U.S. invasion was the cause of al-Qaida existing in Iraq.
Obama’s certainly right about that, of course. Saddam Hussein was a ruthless tyrant who killed everybody who was a threat, and that included foreign fighters and any incipient al-Qaida members. But that was beside the point, which really was that Obama was ignorant of al-Qaida’s existence in Iraq. He also wants to be the president. The war in Iraq is one of the most important issues facing us, and he should know that al-Qaida is in Iraq already.
Two of the most critical leadership skills are to be able to identify good people and to hire them, and a demonstrated ignorance of simple facts is a glaring symptom that a candidate is not surrounded by good people.
And for his part, on Friday President Bush himself commented on Medvedev. He got his name right, but he said that he didn’t know anything about him. The candidates should not need a lesson on the danger of having substandard advisers. A mere review of the last eight years ought to be lesson enough.
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst and a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.