Maybe it's time to revamp White House qualifications


Oprah Winfrey’s impassioned, tremendously effective speech at the Golden Globes ceremony on Jan. 7 immediately sparked calls for her to run for the U.S. presidency in 2020. 

But is it wise to promote the candidacy of a person whose celebrity and wealth stems from her brilliance as an entrepreneur, talk show host, film producer and performer, but who has no experience in government? Do Americans care whether a person running for the highest elective office in our nation has any relevant experience or expertise at all?

Indeed, the requirements for running for president include neither experience nor knowledge. Rather, they fall into only three categories: citizenship, age and residency. To be eligible to run for the office of president, one must simply be a natural-born citizen, at least 35 years old, and a resident of the country for at least 14 years. There are no other official requirements.

Particular sorts of experience and knowledge are not necessary. One need not have a resume, and one need not pass any sort of exam to get one’s name on the ballot.

By contrast, if you want to work for the federal government in areas including the foreign service, customs, air traffic control, law enforcement and the postal service — as well as certain secretarial and clerical positions — you must take a civil service exam. For most other federal jobs, you might provide a resume that, unlike the one- or two-page resume usual in the private sector, must contain “over 40 specific informational data elements,” according to FederalJobs.net.

Resumes for such jobs are typically upward of six pages long, and must include extensive information about one’s background, work experience and education.

Most New York City government jobs “are part of the competitive class, which requires permanent appointment through taking and passing a competitive civil service examination,” according to NYC.gov. If you see a New York state government job, “you will most likely have to take a civil service exam before applying for the position you’re interested in,” according to NY.gov.

Why do we require virtually nothing of a similar nature for those seeking the presidency? Why don’t we hold them to similar standards?

When voters went to the polls on Nov. 8, 2016, they knew that Donald Trump had never held any elective office or any job in the public sector. They knew that he had never served on any community boards or collaborated with others in organizations whose goals center on the betterment of society.

But were they aware how little he knows about American and world history? Major figures in American and world history and the present day? 

The U.S. Constitution, and the structure of the federal government and how the three branches of our government function and interact?

Did they know how little he knows about geography, science, diplomacy, health care and insurance, immigration, sources of energy, U.S. agriculture, the tax code, the interpretation of statistics, and other areas of knowledge and issues directly connected to decisions a president must make?

During the GOP primary debates, he displayed mainly his ability to ridicule and put down the other candidates, and even the questions posed to him during the televised presidential debates failed to reveal his grasp of any issues. None elicited substantive responses about any of them.

Americans do not have to read Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House” to know how little Trump knows. Before his election, he told a group of Republican congressmen that he would protect not only the first and second articles of the Constitution, but Article XII as well — although the Constitution only has seven articles, not 12.

On Feb. 1, 2017, in an event held in conjunction with Black History Month, President Trump remarked that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job, and is getting recognized more and more, I notice” — as if Douglass, the prominent abolitionist who died in 1895, was still alive and was currently attracting attention.

In May 2017, while meeting with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, President Trump declared that he had just returned form the Middle East, apparently unaware that Israel is in the Middle East. In a speech to African diplomats at the United Nations in September, Trump referred twice to the nation of “Nambia” — but while Gambia, Zambia and Namibia are real countries, “Nambia” does not exist.

Trump has repeatedly asserted that the U.S. Justice Department is subordinate to him, although the judiciary and the executive branches of our government are equals. He took credit for the absence of any fatalities in commercial airline flights in 2017, apparently unaware that there had been none in the preceding three years either.

Is it really possible for a person so ignorant of vital facts to be an effective leader of our nation, and an effective leader on the international scene? Or should people running for the presidency be required to show that, at the very least, they are equipped in terms of knowledge and experience to function effectively in that position?

It is worth noting here that nobody can serve as an officer in the military without undergoing a physical exam and an exam to determine mental fitness for the job, both administered by government-appointed specialists. Why do we not demand the same for the commander-in-chief or our armed forces?

Miriam Helbok,