President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton have been in seclusion with their coaches, trying to prepare for whatever awkward questions come up in Sunday night's debate. But is there really anything left for them to learn?
With the possible exception of Socrates' students, it is doubtful that anyone has ever had more practice answering strange questions than this year's presidential candidates.
From talk shows to news conferences to town meetings, running for president has become a commitment to answer anything anyone in America wants to ask _ scores of questions a day, probably at least 10,000 throughout the campaign, with no time off for stupidity or irrelevance.
Already this year, for instance, the candidates have actually tried to give intelligent answers to journalists and voters who asked:
Did Clinton have a Mr. Potato Head doll as a child? Is the Arkansas governor against crime? Could he explain what is inside the minds of the 898 respondents to the latest poll? Does he favor space exploration or space exploitation? Would his presidency put more eggs in people's refrigerators? How important is California to him? Did his mother make him take out the garbage?
Does President Bush wear boxer shorts or briefs? How does he interpret Clinton's interpretation of the latest poll? Could he describe his personal relationship with Jesus Christ? What kind of car was he driving in 1950? Is it hard being a president and a grandfather at the same time? What is his favorite color? How important is Georgia?
It is sometimes argued that no question is inherently stupid, because you never know what will prompt a revealing answer. Maybe someday a candidate will get off the plane, hear the inevitable question from the local press corps, and reply: "Actually, this state is of no importance to me. We're just refueling here so we can reach some important voters at the next stop."
And maybe, even when the questions do not inspire any immediately discernable enlightenment, there is something ultimately useful about the process. Perhaps the best way to think of the 1992 campaign is as the world's longest Socratic dialogue, a discussion not unlike the one recorded in The Republic, when Socrates proposed "to choose which men have suitable aptitudes for the guardianship of the state."
To choose the proper political leaders, Socrates used the same format as Larry King, a long question-and-answer session. "This is no small task we have taken upon us," Socrates warned his students, and then the great philosopher posed the first question of the most celebrated political discourse in history:
"For this duty as guardian, do you think there is much difference between a well-bred dog and a well-bred young man?"
That particular question has not come up this year _ not yet, at least _ but there have been plenty just as inscrutable. They fall into various categories:
"Do you think you can win?" No other question gets asked so often (Clinton heard it five times on Larry King Live on Monday night), and no other question makes so little sense.
The answer is obligatory, and even if a politician were unprofessional enough to be honest, his opinion as a handicapper would not be useful to a voter. It is roughly equivalent to shopping for a car by asking a Chevrolet dealer if he expects to sell the models on the lot.
Test your own presidential potential by guessing the answers to these questions:
"Would you have objections to more than one woman or one minority sitting on the High Court?" (To Clinton, at a town meeting in Louisville, Ky.)
"Will you be the president that was in office when the straw broke the camel's back, or will you be the one that walks the 20 blocks down to Congress, puts aside all the excuses and finally does something about the deficit problem?" (To Bush, on CBS This Morning, from a man in Kissimmee)
"Would you agree that there is a place for four-wheel-drive trails in this great country of ours?" (To Bush, from a writer from Four Wheeler magazine.)