Last week, on MSNBC, Gary Johnson flunked what may have been his most prominent appearance in this campaign to date. A simple question on the Syrian civil war from commentator Mike Barnicle—“What would you do, if elected, about Aleppo?”— elicited the following stunned, and stunning, response from the Libertarian Party candidate: “And what is Aleppo?”
That gaffe makes Johnson the latest victim of what I call the “Bush-Perry Syndrome.” This ailment, which invariably leaves the victim abashed, even stricken, occurs when a candidate’s inability to grasp either the policies or people he’ll encounter in the Oval Office occurs in a particularly high-profile setting. The syndrome is named for two Texas governors who, despite their common wilting under blinding scrutiny, do not seem to have had much affection for each other.
In November 1999, facing an interrogator from a Boston TV station, George W. Bush came up with only one of four international statesmen recently in the news—a pop quiz that his father could have aced.
Fortunately, Bush had a vast retinue of retainers and other supporters from his father’s days as a politician—along with a reputation of his own that was not yet sullied by a mismanaged war—which allowed him to survive, though it was a portent of the inattention to detail that would plague him in the Oval Office.
Rick Perry, however, was not as lucky in the 2012 primaries. He had just boasted of his tax plan when he segued into how he’d reduce the number of regulations and the size of government by eliminating three government agencies: Commerce, Education, and—oh, what was the third one? The best he could come up with after a minute, in front of a moderator, his opponents in that November 2011 debate, and an audience that would make his flub go viral before the world, was “Oops!”
These were, according to a Washington Post story last September, moments that would “forever define his brief time as a national figure”—effectively ending not only Perry’s first campaign for the Presidency, but fatally overshadowing his second one, four years later.
Which brings us back to Johnson, who—at least till last week—was being eyed by a not-inconsiderable part of the electorate as a viable alternative to the two wildly polarizing Republican and Democratic candidates. Barnicle couldn’t hide his astonishment over Johnson’s blank response: “You’re kidding, right?” In short order, through the commentator and a host of news articles, Johnson was reminded (or, some might be less charitable in thinking, informed) that, as Syria’s largest city, Aleppo had become the epicenter of that sad country’s ferocious free-for-all.
Others might believe that Johnson might have gotten around to learning about its sad plight, except that, instead of reading Steven Coll’s signed commentary in The New Yorker about the crisis, the former governor of New Mexico had been reading (and maybe re-reading) in the same magazine something that is always a politician’s favorite subject: an article about himself.
The Ryan Lizza article, in the July 25 issue, depicted Johnson as an amiable politico willing to go off the Republican reservation when it came to issues such as abortion, gay rights, and immigration.
Oh, yes, and willing to make an eyebrow-raising concession to political norms: If elected President, stated this recent C.E.O. of the marijuana-branding company Cannabis Sativa, Inc., a marijuana-branding company, “I will not indulge in anything. I don’t think you want somebody answering the phone at two o’clock in the morning—that red phone—drunk, either.” He last ingested a pot edible a few months ago, he said.
For Johnson, his new-found abstinence also robbed him of the only plausible explanation besides lack of intellectual substance for why he had royally messed up his answer to Barnicle’s question: i.e., that he was too high to grasp it.
“Candor” is a politician’s word for nothing left to lose. At this point in the campaign, Johnson’s surge in the polls resembled nothing so much as the New York Yankees after getting rid of much of their high-priced older talent at the end of July: the younger talent brought aboard, with no expectations on their shoulders, promptly reeled off a string of victories until some tough losses brought them back to earth again.
With yesterday’s news that Johnson’s sub-15% share of polls has led to his exclusion from the first Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the Libertarian standard-bearer may rue what might have been but for his response to Barnicle. At the same time, his new-found freedom to speak could make him an even more credible alternative to the Democrat and Republican Presidential nominees among voters who want to register their chagrin with current politics without doing something completely insane.
After all, nuttier things have already happened in this election—just about every day.