At Tuesday night’s presidential debate, the candidates were asked what moderator Tom Brokaw called a “Zen question”: “What don’t you know and how will you learn it?”

While neither candidate provided a direct answer but used the question to segue into his spiel, each acknowledged that, in Sen. Barack Obama’s words, “It’s never the challenges you expect. It’s the challenges you don’t.” And Sen. John McCain said, “What I don’t know is what the unexpected will be.”

We fell to thinking about all the unexpected events that have “challenged” this country in many of our readers’ lifetimes: the Cold War; the body bags arriving night after night from Vietnam; the Cuban missile crisis; the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the ensuing communal grief; the Persian Gulf War and U.S. soldiers’ post-traumatic stress; the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks; the global warming crisis; and the current financial meltdown, among others.

The next president and vice president may face similar – perhaps harsher – challenges, and we the people will have to face these along with them. Our posterity may thrive or suffer, depending on how those challenges are met. “[W]e may hand our children and our grandchildren a damaged planet,” as McCain said in the debate. Or we may hand our children and our grandchildren an unending, even a nuclear, war.

That is why this election is so important. That is why we must pick the president who can best – most intelligently and clear-headedly – respond to such challenges. Some presidents have been better at confronting the unexpected than others. We think of John Kennedy facing down Nikita Khruschev. We think of Ronald Reagan demanding, “Mr. Gorbachev, take down that wall.” And although, to be sure, the challenges George W. Bush has come up against in his presidency have been enormous (9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, for example), few today would term his responses even adequate.

One good thing emerged from the debate: Both candidates strongly expressed their support for Israel, which is important for the nation and the world to understand – and certainly heartening for our readers and the State of Israel to know.

RKB