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Questions About Foreign Affairs

I would like to ask Murrey Marder to say a few words in conclusion. Murrey is the person responsible for this series of watchdog journalism conferences that the Nieman Foundation began last year.



I did want to emphasize the purpose of the watchdog program. Which is to intensify interest in serious reporting by the press and serious attention by the public. We've had an interesting discussion here. One could say you landed up where you began. In many ways we have. But that's the nature of the subject. One thing we have done here, I believe, is raise a lot of questions that otherwise would not have been raised. Sitting here and listening to it I was compelled to think of a couple more questions that were not asked, which illustrate the possibility that as intensely as we all think we have asked questions often the most obvious questions never do get asked.

Some of you will recall that one of the simplest but most penetrating questions for a presidential candidate was once asked by Roger Mudd in questioning Senator Ted Kennedy on live television. It was, why do you want to be president? For moments there was dead silence, you may recall. The Senator was unprepared for an elementary question and too confounded to improvise. His campaign was devastated right at the outset. I think we should be asking that question again. That basic question. I would certainly like to know from each candidate, to explain in two or three minutes exactly why he wants to be president. Or she, of course.

A related question could be based on the practice of describing the occupant of the White House as leader of the Western world. This honorific title came out of the Cold War when American nuclear weapons could determine whether many nations would live or die. Today many people of the Western alliance remain very conscious that their fate can still be decided in the White House. If they could ask they certainly want to ask the candidates for the presidency what I think is about the most humbling question you can ask anybody. What qualifies you to be the leader of the western world? I would love to hear the answers to that question.

I also would want to know from each candidate before making any commitment to send US troops abroad would the candidate as president pledge to give the American public in advance a full explanation of the pros and cons of the intended troop deployment. I certainly wish that question would have been asked by the press seriously before all of the recent troop commitments abroad, notably Kosovo, the last one.

And, what in a candidate's view is the purpose of freedom of information so far as the American government is concerned? Is he or she prepared for open government and also prepared to seek declassification of the mountains of information withheld from the public on grounds of secrecy decades after any valid reason for secrecy?

Lastly, as we pile up questions to challenge or stump the candidates we should not, in our zeal to question others, forget that there are also questions that all of us in the print and broadcast press should be asking ourselves. At the end of the day the voters who cast ballots and those who do not are not voting only for candidates for office. They are also casting ballots, or not casting ballots, as the case may be, which express their interest in and their share in our political system. We in the press have as much of a stake in this system as any candidate does. For if we do not help to explain it accurately, fairly and compellingly the system cannot sustain itself. For this democracy is participatory in the most literal sense. If we don't participate it fails. So the stake is as simple as that.

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