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Published: Saturday, 5/31/2008

Give Obama the potato test

HE GENERATES even more gaffes than Dan Quayle. "We have not exhausted our nonmilitary options in confronting the Iranian threat; in many ways, we have yet to try them," Sen. Barack Obama says on his Web site. "If Iran abandons its nuclear program and support for terrorism, we will offer incentives like membership in the World Trade Organization."

It was Albert Einstein who first defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

"Perhaps Mr. Obama is unaware that one of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's first acts was to freeze Tehran's efforts for securing WTO membership because he regards the outfit as 'a nest of conspiracies by Zionists and Americans,'•" wrote Amir Taheri in the Wall Street Journal this week.

In 2006, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice offered Iran a package of incentives including "improving Iran's access to the international economy, markets, and capital, through practical support for full integration into international structures, including the WTO."

Mr. Obama can escape Einstein's charge by pleading ignorance. He didn't know about U.S. overtures to Iran, or Mr. Ahmadinejad's rejection of them. But shouldn't a candidate for president know these things?

Last week, I twitted Mr. Obama for saying he'd campaigned in 57 states, for not knowing that his home state of Illinois borders on Kentucky, and for claiming the Cuban Missile Crisis (October, 1962) was defused by President Kennedy's summit meeting with Nikita Khruschchev (June, 1961). Earlier, Mr. Obama said 10,000 people were killed when a tornado struck Greensburg, Kansas last year (the death toll was 12), and assumed Afghans speak Arabic (they don't).

After Mr. Obama took opposite sides on successive days last week on whether Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez should be engaged or isolated, ABC's Jake Tapper described him as "a one-man gaffe machine." And that was before his Memorial Day twofer.

Speaking in New Mexico, Mr. Obama seemed not to understand Memorial Day honors those who died in war, and claimed his uncle was one of the soldiers who liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp. Since Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, and Mr. Obama's mom was an only child, this is unlikely.

When this misstatement was spotted by bloggers, the Obama campaign said the senator had in mind his great uncle, Charles W. Payne, who, the campaign said, had served in the 89th Infantry Division, which liberated Ohrdruf, a slave labor camp that was a satellite of Buchenwald. This explanation has satisfied most journalists. But Charles W. Payne is not listed on the roster of the 89th Infantry Division, perhaps because the Kansas State Historical Society says Charles W. Payne entered the Navy on Nov. 10, 1942.

Mr. Obama has told the Auschwitz story before. But in an Oct. 2, 2002 speech, the protagonist was his grandfather:

"My grandfather signed up for the war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton's army," Mr. Obama said then. "He saw the dead and dying across the fields of Europe; he heard the stories of fellow troops who first entered Auschwitz and Treblinka."

(Stanley Dunham entered the Army on June 18, 1942. Treblinka, which, like Auschwitz, is in Poland, was liberated by the Red Army.)

It isn't a good idea to take what Mr. Obama says at face value. As facts emerged, he issued eight different descriptions of his relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. The "uncle at Auschwitz" story might be again revised.

Dan Quayle was just 41 and looked younger when George H. W. Bush plucked him from relative obscurity to be his running mate. Journalists portrayed Mr. Quayle as inexperienced and not too bright, an image cemented on June 15, 1992, when, while officiating at a spelling bee in Trenton, New Jersey, he corrected a 12-year-old's spelling of "potato," telling the boy there was an "e" on the end.

Mr. Quayle was wrong, but not terribly. "Potatoe" was an accepted spelling through the 19th century, and the error was on a cue card provided by school authorities. But journalists needed no further proof that Mr. Quayle was a dunce.

Journalists have been more kind to Mr. Obama, though his gaffes exceed those of Mr. Quayle, and he has less experience. Mr. Quayle had served four years in the House and eight in the Senate before becoming vice president.

Still, the question arises: Can Barack Obama spell "potato?"

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.



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