The World’s Toughest Political Quiz

Think you know American politics? Well then let’s see if you can pass this extraordinarily difficult test by Jeff Greenfield.

The Daily Beast

One of the rites of passage for every young political reporter is to listen to the elders tell stories about campaigns past. Your general reaction runs along the lines of: “When will these geezers give it up and go for a mall walk or something?” When the Leap Years pass, and you find yourself at the other end of the demographic chain, you’re likely to think: “These whippersnappers have no fricking clue.”

How can you know whether the recollections you find so fascinating are causing eyeballs to roll among the non-AARP-Medicare cohort? Simple: Take this test. The higher your score, the more likely it is that you can lip-sync along to the “Checkers” Speech.

1. Rule 16(c)

2. RW Apple’s New York Times column of October 27, 1975.

3. “I shear taxpayers, not sheep.”

4. The Canuck Letter.

5. Spiro Agnew, Des Moines Iowa, November 13, 1969

6. “We have a phobia about nuclear weapons”

7. Lou Gordon TV Interview, August 31, 1967

8. He’s a “chronic campaigner”

9. The Maddox and the Turner Joy (not hard)

10. Birth of a baby, May 29,1964

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11. Los Angeles Times reporter Carl Greenberg, November 1962 (really obscure)

12. “We’re eyeball to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked.”

13. Quemoy and Matsu—(extra credit—The Pescadores Islands)

14. G. David Schine



1. Rule 16(c) was a proposed change in the rules at the 1976 Republican Convention. The Reagan campaign, narrowly behind in its attempt to unseat President Ford, had announced that Reagan would name his running mate before the convention (he chose liberal Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker). The rules change would have required all candidates to do the same. The idea was to force Ford to announce his choice before the balloting, thus alienating those who would want a more (or less) conservative choice. The rules change narrowly failed, and Ford went on to win a first-ballot nomination with the smallest margin of any incumbent President.

2. Former Gov. Jimmy Carter entered the 1976 Presidential campaign as a more or less total unknown. In an effort to gain early attention, he focused his attention on the Iowa precinct caucuses, which had never mattered much. But on October 27, 1975, The New York Times’ R.W. Apple Jr. wrote that Carter had built “a surprising but solid lead in Iowa.” It put the caucuses front and center; and when Carter “won” the caucuses (finishing second to “Uncommitted”), major news outlets greeted it as a major event. This put Carter on the road to the White House and made the highly undemocratic and unrepresentative caucuses the starting point of every campaign.

3. In 1974, Ohio Gov. John Gilligan--a man who never met a wisecrack he didn’t like--was working the Ohio State Fair. When asked by the press if he’d shear a sheep for the benefit of the cameras, Gilligan said, “I shear taxpayers, not sheep.” Gilligan, who was seen as a potential national candidate, became virtually the only prominent Democrat to lose his post in that Watergate year that saw huge Democratic gains. (Twenty-eight years later, his daughter, Kathleen Sebelius, was elected Governor of Kansas, and then went on to become Health and Human Services Secretary.)

4. In 1972, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie was the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. But in New Hampshire, he became the principal target of William Loeb, the paleo-conservative owner of The Manchester Union-Leader, by far the most important media outlet in the state. On February 24, two weeks before the primary, the paper published a forged letter alleging that Muskie had laughed when a staff member bragged “we have Canucks”-- an insulting term aimed at French-Americans, of whom New Hampshire had a significant number. Muskie was so incensed by this and other items in the paper that he held a press conference in front of the paper’s offices, denouncing it in emotional terms--and wiping away a tear (or were they snowflakes?) from his face. The “crying” incident is thought to have hurt Muskie in the primary--which he won handily, but with under 50 percent of the vote. The loss of this “expectation” game began his decline and ultimate withdrawal from the race.

5. This is the date and place of Vice-President Spiro Agnew’s first frontal assault on the media. In assailing the coverage of an important Vietnam speech by President Nixon, Agnew raised the issue of “elitism” for the first time--questioning the “concentration [of power] in the hands of a tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government.” It marked the beginning of a series of such speeches; and it was the first vice-presidential speech ever carried live by all three TV networks...suggesting that if the goal was intimidation, it was at least partially successful.

6. George Wallace ran as an independent candidate for President in 1968, and polls showed doing well not just in the South, but among white working-class voters in many Northern cities. However, when he introduced his running mate, retired Air force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, the general offered his long-held opinion about the usefulness of nuclear weapons in combat situations, adding “we have a phobia about nuclear weapons,” and minimizing the effect of nuclear testing. Wallace’s standing began to decline, and while he won 13 percent of the vote and carried five Southern states, he failed in his goal to win enough states to deadlock the Electoral College.

7. Michigan Gov. George Romney (Mitt’s dad) was a serious contender for the 1968 GOP nomination, but his awkwardness in off-the-cuff comments was giving him trouble. None was more damaging than what he said on Lou Gordon’s TV show, when asked why he had changed from hawk to dove on Vietnam. “When I came back from Vietnam (in November 1965) I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get," he said, adding, “I no longer believe that it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam to stop Communist aggression in Southeast Asia.” The “brainwashing comment” overwhelmed the campaign (and brought out the lacerating wit of Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy, who said, “In Romney’s case, a light rinse would have sufficed”). Romney’s campaign never recovered, and he withdrew just before the New Hampshire primary.

8. In 1966, Richard Nixon kick-started his comeback from his “last press conference” farewell by campaigning for Republicans across the country. He also positioned himself as a “responsible” critic of Johnson’s Vietnam policy--though never quite saying what he would do. In October, he wrote a detailed criticism of the president’s stand, which The New York Times published in full--giving it major visibility. At a press conference, Johnson responded by calling Nixon a “chronic campaigner”-- which did Nixon nothing but good among Republicans. It was an important step in his capture of the White House two years lager

9. The Maddox and the Turner Joy were the two ships involved with an alleged exchange with North Vietnamese patrol boats in the Gulf of Tonkin in August of 1964. Although the incidents were clouded in confusion--and it was later learned that the second “attack” almost surely did not take place--Johnson used the incident as a reason to get from Congress a resolution authorizing him to use conventional military forces against North Vietnam. Only two senators opposed the resolution, which the administration later claimed was the authority for a full-scale war.

10. In June 1964, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater were in a close contest for the winner-take-all California primary. Three days before the primary, Rockefeller’s wife gave birth to a boy--reminding voters that the Governor had left his wife of many years to marry a woman many years his junior--who had left her husband and children for him. It may have been the reason why Goldwater beat Rockefeller by three points, and effectively sewed up the GOP nomination.

11. In Nixon’s “last” press conference following his defeat for California governor in 1962, Nixon singled out the Los Angeles Times’ Carl Greenberg for praise: “he wrote it fairly; he wrote it objectively; he had an obligation to report the facts as he saw them.” In response, Greenberg offered the Times his resignation, which was refused.

12. This was Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s comment during one of the tensest moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962--when Soviet ships that were approaching the “quarantine” line established by U.S. Naval vessels stopped and then turned around. It was the first optimistic sign that the confrontation--the closest the United States and the Soviet Union ever came to nuclear war--would be peacefully resolved.

13. In the midst of the relatively content-free 1960 election, one of the specific areas of disagreement between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon came over the status of Quemoy and Matsu--two tiny islands off the coast of China under the control of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Republic of China--on the island of Formosa. In 1957, the islands came under repeated shelling by Mainland--or as it was then called, “Red”-- China. During a debate, the candidates were asked about the islands. JFK said the islands were indefensible, and that American forces would be used only if an attack was a prelude to an attack on Formosa or the Pescadores Islands, an archipelago between the “two “Chinas.” Nixon said defending the two islands was “a matter of principle.” Essentially, no one has ever spoken of the issue again. The two islands are now tourist sites for visitors from Taiwan and mainland China.

14. G .David Schine was a 26-year-old heir to a hotel fortune who became a special “unpaid consultant” to the staff of Senator Joseph McCarthy and to Chief Counsel Roy Cohn--who became something of a mentor to Schine. (Rumors hinted at a closer relationship.) When Schine was drafted into the Army in 1953, Cohn began demanding that he be given a commission; he repeatedly urged this or other special treatment in communications to the Secretary of the Army. The “special treatment” demanded became one of the key issues in the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, which climaxed with Joseph Welch’s thundering denunciation of McCarthy (“have you no sense of decency, sir?”) and effectively ended McCarthy’s hold on power.

If you answered seven or more of these correctly, you are eligible for a lifetime supply of Metamucil. If you answered nine or more, you may have won a SONY Betamax and an eight-track operating system. Inquiries will be accepted only via Western Union telegram or rotary phone.