Aleppo, presidential perfection, and what must be known

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The life of a candidate for president of the United States is lived under the microscope. Candidates are constant media fodder, the subject of skeleton-seeking investigations, and the unfortunate darlings of an overeager paparazzi. There’s no escaping these realities. They come with the territory, which is why most of us will never run for president.

Also, most of us will never run for president because we are unqualified.

But, being unqualified has never been unqualifying.

Hillary Clinton didn’t know ‘C’ meant classified. Donald Trump didn’t know Russia had invaded Ukraine. And Gary Johnson didn’t know what Aleppo was.

None of these appeared to be brief lapses of memory (watch the videos). They were genuine gaps in knowledge. Important gaps.

On the one hand, being a public figure can be tough. You must always be—or at least seem to be—in the know. You have to be prepared for a wide variety of questions. You have to be permanently on. This is probably never truer than for the President of the United States.

On the other hand, you’re running for PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES. It’s in the job description that you be of above average intelligence—at least as it relates to domestic issues, foreign policy, law, strategy, and popular sentiment.

And if smarts isn’t in the job description, it should be.

I like Gary Johnson. Of the three main presidential candidates, he’s definitely the one I could most easily see myself grabbing lunch with. He seems like a regular guy.

But maybe he’s too regular.

Almost certainly, three out of four Americans couldn’t tell you what Aleppo is or what is happening there. In that sense, Johnson is no less knowledgeable than the majority of Americans. But to be president, the standard is much higher than being “no less knowledgeable.”

Presidents should be exceptional.

To be sure, neither Clinton nor Trump strike me as particularly exceptional either—though I believe they have unique acumen in their own fields of specialty (foreign policy and business, respectively)—but the Aleppo gaffe strikes me as especially sad.

Aleppo is the focal point of the most significant forced displacement in the world today. It is the violent epicenter of the Syrian war—a war in which American intelligence, arms, and assistance is deeply involved. For Johnson to not know Aleppo would be like Bill Clinton not knowing Sarajevo or George W. Bush not knowing Fallujah.

Such faux pas are inexcusable.

This, at least, is where we can give Johnson credit. Unlike his two big-party opponents, he didn’t make excuses. He didn’t try to hide his mistake. He didn’t double-down. He apologized and explained how he would do better in the future. For this tact he deserves a lot of admiration.

We hold our politicians to a very high standard… when it suits us. Maybe an impossibly high one. But governing the most powerful nation on earth is a job of impossible standards and expectations. It can’t be easy to be perfect, which is why the model of Presidential Perfection is a tough one. But whereas imperfections in your girlfriend are endearing, imperfections in the president are loathsome. This, of course, is not fair, but life is not fair. And DC is not fair. And politics is not fair.

You know those civics tests that immigrants have to take in order to become citizens? One out of three Americans can’t pass it. Presidents, probably, should get 100 percent.

Admittedly, if I were running for president, I’m confident I would make embarrassing errors along the way. And if I didn’t, some would be made up for me. So I get it.

Americans don’t need their president to know everything. It’s a question of can versus should. But we need them to know what’s classified, when Russia invades Europe, and Aleppo, the bleeding heart of foreign policy today.

In an era of less-than-ideal presidential candidates, the American people cannot afford to lower the standard demanded of the Oval Office, of the Commander-in-Chief, of the POTUS. We should not settle for lies, ignorance, or incompetence.

And despite the impossibility of Presidential Perfection, we should not even settle for imperfection. We should strive for perfection, unattainable as it is.

As such, whoever is elected, we must, as a people, equip and empower and enlighten the next president to rise to the office. And when they score less than 100 percent, as they inevitably will, correct them, then give them grace to rise again.