Assassination is reminder that election is serious business
WASHINGTON — Once again, the cold, cruel outside world has intruded on the quiet of a holiday season. The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto two days after Christmas brought a shocking end to a time of peaceful celebration and shattered any sense of easy optimism for the new year.
Had it been only 24 hours since Mike Huckabee could joke with reporters in Iowa that when he was out hunting pheasants, he thought of the first three birds he brought down as bearing the names of his opponents in the presidential race? That joke died with Bhutto.
And suddenly, the real stakes in this protracted election contest seemed much larger, with the recognition that the choice the American people are about to make will have consequences far beyond those precinct caucuses in Iowa and the polling places in New Hampshire.
It is a dangerous world out there, especially for those who embody the hopes of their people and freedom’s friends in the places where extremism and repression are far too familiar.
American foreign policy has been preoccupied with Iraq for almost five years now, and the situation in Pakistan has deteriorated during that time.
Pervez Musharraf, the strongman the United States has relied upon to keep order in the country, has become — like Vladimir Putin — as much of a problem as a prop.
In such places as Pakistan, the next president of the United States is likely to confront the most difficult challenges of the time, and the lives of many Americans will rest on those judgments.
There are many such places in this world. From Darfur to North Korea and from the Gaza Strip to the Kremlin, the will and the wisdom of the United States and its leadership are being tested every day. Osama bin Laden has escaped every trap the United States has set for him, and terrorists remain a menace to all Western nations.
In the Pakistan crisis, no one can be certain what experience or what temperament best equips a president to deal with the uncertainties of a Muslim society with a fragile democracy living under a form of martial law and now riven by controversy over the murder of a returned claimant to power — a person with her own controversial history.
But I have found myself thinking about something I was told many years ago by Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, before he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination against Al Gore in 2000. Bradley was explaining one day in his office why he had taken himself out of consideration as a running mate for Michael Dukakis in 1988. You shouldn’t run for vice president, he said, unless you thought you were ready to be president, and he didn’t consider himself ready.
Why not? He said he thought a president of the United States needed to know several other major countries "from the inside," not just at a briefing-book level but from first-hand observation, so you understand the pressures on their leaders when you sit down to negotiate with them.
Bradley had begun such studies in the Soviet Union, Japan, Germany and Mexico, he said, but had more to do in all four places, and China beckoned.
Then, he said, a president should know the leadership elites in this country — not just in politics, but in business, the professions, academia, labor — well enough that he would know where to go to staff his administration. And, he said, you needed to know the policy community well enough to be able to navigate for useful advice.
I thought then — and I still believe — that was as insightful a description of the desirable background for a president as I had ever heard. Bradley turned out to have his shortcomings as a campaigner, but his prescription for a president still seems right.
When all the fun and games are finished, Americans will be choosing a president for a dangerous time in a world that has more shocks to administer. I hope some of the folks in Iowa and New Hampshire are thinking about that.
David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.