Nikki Haley of South Carolina announced that she wants to be the President of the United States. This is in keeping with South Carolina’s long-standing tradition of firing the first shot (Remember Fort Sumter). In this case the first shot fired by this candidate was directed toward the former President. Her announcement was considered by many to be a contradiction to her prior stand that she would not run for the Presidency if the former President announced his intention to run. The former President announced his intention, and Nikki Haley also announced her intention, and she took the novel approach of obliquely suggesting that neither the current President nor the former President was or would be sufficiently competent to run the vast machinery of the federal government. She explicitly endorsed a plan to adopt a “mental competency” test for candidates over 75 years of age. Both the former President and the current President are over 75 years of age. The current President is older than any other sitting American President at 80 years of age. The former President is 76 years old.
Obviously, a mental status evaluation would be appropriate for any individual in charge of launching wars or disarming our nation, regardless of their age. There are however several problems with this suggestion. The design of the test would have to be specific for the job requirement. A problem with spelling would not be an indication of mental defect. In fact, one of our earliest Presidents commented that an educated man should be able to spell most words in several different ways. A familiarity with military terms and activities would be beneficial for a person seeking to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but we have had several Presidents with no military experience whatsoever, and the country has not suffered substantially as a consequence of that. In fact, those with the most extensive military experience, such as Andrew Jackson, and a lack of judicial knowledge have caused considerable pain and suffering for the people living in our country. In the case of Andrew Jackson, this military hero was indifferent to Supreme Court rulings. When the Native American nations in the southern states appealed to the Supreme Court for relief from executive orders to relocate them, the Court sided with the Native Americans and ordered the President not to relocate them. Andrew Jackson ignored the Supreme Court order, and the inhumane eviction, subsequently known as the “Trail of Tears,” proceeded without delay.
In the standard intellectual tests, simple arithmetic, an ability to follow instructions, language proficiency, memory tests, and manipulation of objects, as well as constructions and interpretation of pictures, are usually included in the assessment. The individual might be asked to subtract 7 from 100 until they get to 75. There is also a routine question requesting that the examinee spell a familiar word, such as America, backwards. This tests memory and attention span. The examiner also observes the individual’s behavior for any inconsistencies or failures to follow instructions. Cooperation and focus are important in these assessments.
There are numerous standard tests already available to check the mental competency of a chief executive, but any rational citizen must recognize that this suggestion was stillborn even before Governor Haley finished proposing it.
Implementation of such a test would be difficult, even if the candidates were willing to cooperate. The former President, if he did not score as well as other candidates, would get on the phone to the parties scoring the test and demand that they add points to his score. Although this maneuver failed in the past, the redundancy of many of the former President’s requests indicate that he would resort to this tactic once again, unless the scorers were more cooperative in ranking his performance.
Many individuals who are very intelligent score poorly on these standard tests and so a ranking of the individuals would be misleading. Obviously an alternative strategy is to simply identify the individual as having passed or failed and to establish in advance a score at which that designation, passed or failed, would be awarded.
To avoid any recognition of the examinee, the test could be blinded by simply having numerous individuals identified only by a secret code take the exam and have the exam scored by machines that would then attribute a pass or fail to each numbered individual. As a control, several people with dementia would be recruited to take the test so that there would be failures in the group being tested. Obviously an individual motivated to run the most powerful country in the world would be tempted to subvert the entire process by hacking the computer system that coded the number for his or her test and hacking the scoring system to establish that he or she had a passing a score.
Anyone engaged in sensitive work, such as that required of the President of the United States, should be screened for emotional lability, problem solving, reliability, and survivability. The process involved in selecting a President is supposed to allow the general public to decide if a candidate meets these criteria. We know from many past examples that the general public has failed in its effort to identify individuals who will not only support the laws of the nation but also abide by those laws.
For example, Warren Harding was elected just as Prohibition began, and he vowed to support and defend the Constitution, which included an amendment which was the basis for the Volstead Act, the law banning most alcoholic beverage sales. Despite the Constitutional mandate to enforce prohibition, Warren Harding kept a well-stocked bar in the White House, as well as in the brothel where he frequently hung out with his political cronies. The general public did not have an opportunity to recognize his lie and vote him out of office because he died prior to standing for reelection. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep America out of the World War decimating Europe, and he also failed in his promise, as well as in his responsibility to treat all Americans fairly. He was an unapologetic white supremacist and hailed “The Birth of a Nation,” a movie celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, as the finest historical portrayal he had ever witnessed.
Nikki Haley obviously injected a new viewpoint into the contest for President, and for that she should be applauded. Her suggestion is obviously unworkable given the power inherent in the job that she seeks and its ability to subvert the conduct of any screening test that might be adopted for choosing a President. Her suggestion that old men may not be the best leaders for this country appeals to the prejudice of many young voters and should be dismissed as nothing more than a political stunt to garner attention to her candidacy. That someone is young and has political experience provides no guarantee that they will have the judgment, tenacity, flexibility, and moral compass needed to sustain and improve the condition of all Americans.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.