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Op-Ed: The case for a Presidential Sanity Test

Op-Ed: The case for a Presidential Sanity Test

This year’s vexatious American presidential election is an ideal time to consider just how thoroughly candidates are vetted for obvious, and not so obvious, flaws in their character, or gaps in their knowledge. And what to do about it. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

When I joined the American foreign service (became a diplomat) way back in the early 1970s, I had to undergo hours of questioning by investigators who probed the state of my rather minimal finances, my physical and psychological health, my love life, education and limited work experience so far, who my friends were, what my ideas and my friends’ ideas about politics were, the thoroughness of my loyalty to the nation, my understanding of American history, society, its national institutions and its culture, and so much more.

The whole lengthy process made my head swim, and it astonished and confounded my friends, my family and my then roommate as well. (The investigators found our poster of Black Panthers leader Huey Newton, seated on a large colonial-style cane chair, and with a high-power hunting rifle across his lap, of some casual but noteworthy interest.)

And if I had been married at the time, my spouse would have been subjected to even more investigations – as ultimately became the case several years later when I was poised to marry someone who was not yet an American citizen. The forms that needed to be filled out in both cases turned into a near full-time occupation for days. All of this was designed to thwart the possibility that someone might conceivably inveigle their way into a top secret security clearance (and thus access to all kinds of information) in order to subvert the entire nation and thus turn over crucial national secrets to the Chinese, the Russians – or much worse. If I had had access to military secrets, nuclear missile launch codes, or highly classified information on Nato troop deployments, it might well have mattered rather more than it did in my job of trying to build support for and understanding of American society and its government’s policies with quizzical or dubious publics around the world. But if you wanted the job, you took all this as the personal burden cost of business. Just shrug your shoulders and get through it.

But even when the veritable safety and security of the nation is not at stake, just consider the amount of documentation required when you try to buy a house or a flat these days. There are those endless proofs of income, personal identification, banking and credit checks, and the hundreds of times one signs documents that all seem to look the same, but which serve the information hunger of hidden masters whose money you are about to borrow.

This deep dive into one’s personal circumstances now extends to nearly everything – for almost all of us throughout our separate lives. Recently, for example, my wife had her South African driver’s licence stolen from her in a smash and grab attack while she was driving home from a theatre matinee performance. Since she reported the theft to the police she has been on a treadmill, visiting three different government offices multiple times in order to get a replacement copy. This seems to have been a game played by clever bureaucrats who keep discovering new ways to insist upon more and more documentation before they finally deign to issue her with a replacement licence. And still it continues on through life.

Or consider how airline pilots are treated by their employers. We all quite rightly want to be reassured that, besides a certain confirmation of their technical skills as pilots, such people are rock-solidly emotionally stable when they get behind the controls. This is obviously the case because while they are flying their craft, they have absolute control over the lives and well-being of their passengers – as well as, potentially, many others on the ground.

As a result, there are elaborate, ongoing mechanisms in place for psychological evaluations and psychometric testing to ensure these people remain rock solid, rather than losing control as pilots. This seems eminently reasonable to do in order to prevent avoidable death and destruction – and all those costly and damaging lawsuits by aggrieved relatives. The cases of the German Wings pilot who reportedly falsified mental health reports and then crashed his plane in the French Alps, and the Egypt Air pilot who appears to have flown his jet into the sea in October 1999, both point out the need for constant vigilance over the state of the mental health of commercial pilots.

And if this is true for commercial pilots, it is much more so in the case of military pilots who are often called upon to fly aircraft equipped with devastating, lethal weaponry in peacetime and over civilian areas in the course of training activities – let alone during active military hostilities. This is even more important in the circumstances of those physically isolated military officers in those locked-down nuclear missile silos (the ones where they can launch only with the turning of two separated keys by two officers and only with authorisation from a higher authority via the whole chain of command) or by officers on those equally isolated nuclear armed submarines.

In such circumstances, military/civilian chains of command must have absolute assurance that an officer (or perhaps even teams of officers) will not – somehow – figure out a way to circumvent all the controls and safeguards on launch commands, due to psychological flaws in the military officers in charge of vastly destructive military hardware. There is absolutely no room in real life for a Dr Strangelove event because of some psychological quirk in an Air Force captain, stationed deeply underground, in some isolated spot in rural Montana.

Similarly, at a less lethal level, but certainly closer to many in everyday life; and, as every fan of American television police dramas knows, almost every time an American police officer kills an apparent criminal in the line of duty, let alone hitting a total bystander, the officer in question must hand in their badge and any firearms, and then go on restricted duty until they have been evaluated by a psychologist and, generally, a police review board – and sometimes even a grand jury or a criminal trial – before being cleared for a return to regular full-time duty. (This process is different from the question of whether police are or are not too easily exonerated. This issue has, of course, provoked great social and political debate and sometimes even violent public unrest.) The point of such controls, of course, is that since society gives police the capability to cause grievous bodily harm or death, there must be concurrent stringent, ongoing controls, training, reviews, and thorough re-evaluations for suitability, prior to letting such people loose on society with lethal force available in a holster on their hips – or in their hands.

And so we come to the current American presidential election, in which the emotional and temperamental suitability of one of the candidates is being increasingly questioned, even as the truthfulness of another is also being wheeled into question as well. Traditionally, Americans have accepted the idea that the fine grinding of a lengthy, onerous presidential campaign – let alone a candidate’s prior political career and a vast trail of public records – can be the best test of suitability of a candidate for the responsibilities of the presidency. Commentator after commentator, for generations – and most notably, perhaps, beginning with journalist Theodore H White in his magisterial election chronicles, The Making of the President, first written about the Kennedy election of 1960 – has established a guiding narrative of a lengthy presidential election campaign as the strongest, most comprehensive, most effective test track for any potential president. The constant public questioning, the rigorous, unrelenting campaigning, the debates, the incessant hectoring by the media, have all been praised as the best way to test a candidate and to expose fatal weaknesses before they are voted into an office that controls such unparalleled power.

Together, beyond the rigours of the campaign itself, over the years, candidates, increasingly, have also been expected – and largely felt obligated – to release the records of their physical health, as well as their detailed financial and tax records, in order to give voters a well-rounded picture of the candidates before they vote. Moreover, campaign contributions must be publicly declared in reports to the Federal Elections Commission, and there are individual limits on contributions directly to individual campaigns by individuals (albeit not to the candidates’ superPACs, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision) are strongly enforced.

Voters want to know – and have a vested interest in knowing – if a candidate has hidden medical conditions about which information will emerge that a candidate is being treated by mood altering drugs, or if there have been heart attacks or similar conditions in the past. Similarly, there is interest, as there should be, as to whether a candidate makes his or her money via obscure tax dodges or investments; if there have been donations by foreigners to their campaigns via devious routes or to a pet charity – or even if they have debts owed to suspect banks or shady foreign lenders.

But if the full range of details in one’s inner circumstances must be checked if someone aspires to become a diplomat, a cop, a commercial pilot, or a military officer responsible for only a few nuclear weapons, or even if one wishes to become a newly naturalised citizen, should there really be fewer requirements for the man or woman who will wield enormous power for good – or horror – as the president?

Why not adopt the best practice from all these quotidian spheres of life and apply them to anyone who wishes to become the US president or vice president?

In this, I am energised by Mr Khizr Khan, the man who brandished a copy of the US Constitution in his speech at the Democratic convention at Donald Trump, as well as the citizenship test given to applicants who wish to become naturalised Americans, and insist that a candidate must pass at least that test? And if a jet pilot must be ruthlessly evaluated for his or her physical and mental health (and undergo toxicology screenings during their career), surely the circumstances of the person who can end civilisation during one fit of pique or engaging in decision-making in a substance-enhanced daze must also be similarly guarded against? And then, of course, let us follow through – as a binding legal requirement – with the same vetting every applicant to become a foreign service officer must endure to make sure the candidates have no skeletons in their respective personal and financial closets. And, while we’re at it, let us make full financial disclosure a sine qua non of declaring their candidacy in the first place.

The voters could still make a colossal blunder with their choice of president, but at least they would have done so with the knowledge that they knew pretty much everything they wanted – and needed – to know about the candidates before them, when they finally voted. And maybe this could be a useful approach for other nations as well? Or, just to pluck an example out of the skies, would you be happy to fly across the Pacific Ocean in a great commercial jet with 500 others being piloted by someone whose unexplored quirks of personality, and who had a deep-seated annoyance in dealing with authority, and unstable mental health concerns, and chalk that up as just one of those great unknowns in life? Thought not. DM

Photo: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures and declares “You’re fired!” at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, June 17, 2015.  REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

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