TRIAL BY FOOLSCAP

"Make em write." That's a friend’s prescription for determining if officials running for office have the right stuff or not. "Sit them down with a pen and paper alone in a room. No handlers, no advisors. They have two hours to write an essay on their political vision."

Trial by foolscap. A brilliant suggestion.

No high school student graduates without an essay question in the finals. Why, my friend asks, shouldn't we hold politicians aiming for office to a standard at least as high?

Certainly effective essay-writing is not the only skill that should, or would, make an effective politician. But if you're going to be crowned leader of anything bigger than a beer run, shouldn't you be able to write out your schemes and dreams in a legible way? Shouldn’t you be able to structure a reasoned argument for more than a paragraph, sticking with the same tense all the way through? Shouldn’t you be able to spell?

Here's how it would work. The essay question, chosen by random selection from contributions by the electorate, is presented to the would-be leader, who sits at a desk with a pen and paper. He is monitored by videocamera to make sure he isn't cheating, and after two hours he is summarily dismissed. The essay, typos and all, appears the next day in the newspapers.

As far as our neighbours to the south go, I can see how an essay requirement way back in the 1980 federal election could have potentially short-circuited Iran-Contra, the gutting of the EPA, and other Republican mischief then and since. Certainly, Ronald Reagan talked the talk, but it was never evident that the Gipper’s shimmering words were ever disturbed by so much as a ripple of thought. But I do remember the time his TelePrompTer went, during a national address in the mid-eighties. The Prez came to a crashing halt. He fumbled, sputtered, and then fell silent for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually Reagan lurched to life again, like one of the animatronic robots from the Pirates of the Caribbean.

What was alarming in this instance was that during the time during which the TelePrompTer failed, the "Great Communicator" couldn't recover the thread, or even the context, of his speech. He quite literally didn't have a clue what he was talking about. The Emperor’s clothes vapourized in front of millions, yet this telling moment passed unmentioned by television commentators afterward, including George F. Will , who happened to have written the speech in question.

In retrospect, Reagan's moment of duress could have been an early indication of the Alzheimer’s that sadly claimed his final years. But the point still holds: an essay would have exposed his intellectual limitations, whatever their source. As for George W. Bush, well, here’s a man who apparently can't even read a stop sign after a few beers. A blank sheet of paper could have stopped him cold well before Florida.

The United States of Amnesia is one thing, but what of the Great White North? Preston Manning, Bob Rae, Sheila Copps, and John Crosbie have all penned books, so unless any or all were ghosted efforts, we can assume these four Canadian politicians can at least dictate. (But I'm suspicious about Jean Chretien and his effort, Straight From the Heart. A friend from Montreal assures me the prime monster’s French is as every bit as mangled as his English.)

If we rounded up the usual suspects, and sat them all down together in class to defend their belief systems, what revelations would we find? Would Ralph Klein write a stirring defense of industrial civilization’s rise through oil? Would Gordon Campbell surprise us with learned references to mercantilism and Ayn Rand? Would Jenny Kwan work quotes from Proudhon and anarcho-syndicalists into a fable about painted daisies on urban walls? Probably not. I suppose the most we could hope for is that Christy Clark doesn't put smiley faces over her i’s, and that Svend Robinson doesn't stab himself with his pencil in protest at having to sit next to Deborah Grey.

So in conclusion, Id like to say that when election time rolls around, I don't want to see another glad-handing baby-kisser lurching toward me wearing a baboon-like grin of aggression, and clutching a handful of glossy campaign literature. I want to see someone who can present me with a Xerox of their in-class essay, and say: "I wrote this. Read it, it proves I have a mind and a heart. I intend to use both in office."

Geoff Olson