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See the world, get elected

October 05, 2008|Peter Guttman | Peter Guttman has written five books on travel and has visited more than 200 countries. He holds a degree in geography.

There she is, a woman with a "great personal story to tell," explaining proudly and somewhat derisively to CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric that she's "not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world."

Leave aside for a moment the fact that two decades have passed since college in the life of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and that she only managed to get a passport and leave the country for the first time last year. The real point is this: To most American citizens, geographical knowledge and a curiosity about the world has become the poor orphaned stepchild of our increasingly anemic educational system.

Although historians will long debate how this country arrived at the global mess it's now in, it seems clear that much of it could have been prevented. In fact, I believe that a relatively simple amendment to the Constitution could prevent it from happening again. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution, drafted in 1787, says that only natural-born Americans, at least 35 years of age, who have lived in the country for 14 years can serve as president or vice president. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) has proposed (apparently with his friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, firmly in mind) that this antiquated provision could best be corrected by opening the presidency to foreign-born U.S. citizens.

But this adjustment misses the real point. Although a revision to this section is much needed, I believe that qualifications should not be loosened but rather tightened. I suggest the Constitution be amended to require that candidates for the presidency (and vice presidential selections as well) have visited a minimum of 20 countries. The amendment would require that each visit would have been made more than four years before the candidate's possible inauguration and that it would have lasted at least 48 hours. This serves as proof that a candidate is genuinely interested in, and possibly even knowledgeable about, the world around him or her.

In the 21st century (unlike the period during which the Constitution was written), travel no longer means days of arduous journey by stagecoach or months aboard a steamship to reach an overseas destination. In a country that hopes to lead the world toward a more enlightened future, it is no longer acceptable to allow the reins of American leadership to reside in the hands of anyone lacking what is perhaps the most valuable credential of all -- the experience of foreign travel.

Sadly, we ignored a red flag during our previous two presidential campaigns. Quite simply, a middle-aged man of considerable means and privilege who has freely chosen in his first fortysomething years on this planet to visit fewer than four countries (of the almost 200 United Nations' members) should not be permitted to captain our nation. It is plainly irresponsible to allow a blindfolded driver to navigate through the increasingly chaotic rush-hour traffic of global development, aided only by an off-key chorus of back-seat drivers. Our recent myopic, good-versus-evil attitude toward foreign policy has been one of the obvious results. Our current cartoon perspective on the world could have been sensibly altered with the experience-tempered subtlety and sophistication of leaders who have spent time outside the country.

It's shocking enough that an embarrassing percentage of our congressional members do not actually have passports. That lack of curiosity may be oddly acceptable, even preferable, in some isolationist quarters where votes might well be based on the drinking-buddy likability of those "just like us." However, when sizing up a potential president of the United States, geographic ignorance should be a disqualifying factor.

Some may feel that this requirement is elitist. But is it? During the last century, has there really been any serious presidential candidate who couldn't afford to travel? In the case of those who didn't, I suspect the real issue has been lack of interest, not lack of money. If requiring candidates to demonstrate an interest in the world is elitism, then we need more of it.

The simple fact is, when we close our eyes to the perspectives of others, we lose crucial strategic knowledge. Whatever the complications are in changing the Constitution, they will pale in comparison to the tragic complications we'll continue to face because of its absence.

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