Recent calls have issued for Joe Biden to apologize for his treatment of Anita Hill. Whatever is right about that matter, I point out that Biden has apologized for actions taken decades ago. He did announce his regret, for example, for championing legislation that required harsh sentences for drug offenses, laws that helped lead to our country’s incredibly high incarceration rates.
But he is not the only public figure to backtrack. Kirsten Gillebrand, New York Senator now running for President, has walked back some of her views on immigration. Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign expressed regret for using the term “superpredators” two decades before. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those seeking public office to confess the error of past ways. (Of course, I don’t expect our current president to be in this throng. An apology from him is as likely as me snuggling up to a snot otter—see the last post.)
It is not just politicians seeking votes from the electorate who indicate that a view they once held has been replaced by a new position. The now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh falls into that category. Kavanaugh worked for Ken Starr as Starr Javert-like pursued President Clinton. Kavanaugh doing his Starr turn sought the impeachment of President Clinton and stated at the time that sitting presidents did not have immunity from criminal liability. That criminal liability view changed, however. Kavanaugh indicated he saw the error of his earlier position when he served in the administration of President Bush (the elder) and witnessed firsthand the burdens of the presidency.
Of course, not every office holder or seeker announces a mea culpa when confronted with an inconvenient earlier statement. Often the public figure maintains that the previous statement has been taken out of context, or a twist is given to the long-ago position to make it seem not so bad, and assurances are given that the nominee has always believed something that is now politically palatable.
William Rehnquist in his hearings for both his confirmations as Associate Justice and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court fell into that category. Rehnquist, as a recent law school graduate, had been a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. In that position while the landmark desegregation decision Brown v. Board of Education was pending, he had written a memorandum that defended the “separate-but-equal doctrine” justifying segregated schools. Saying that Brown was wrongly decided was not a way to get confirmation to Supreme Court positions in 1971 and 1986. Rehnquist testified in hearings in those years that the memo did not express his views, but those Justice Jackson, who conveniently or not, had passed on to the big schoolroom in the sky by then.
While Rehnquist maintained that he had held the “right” views all along, Biden, Gillebrand, Clinton, Kavanaugh, and many other public figures acknowledge a previous position while also stating that experience has led them to change their views. A knee jerk response is to see the newly stated belief as politically expedient and to think less of the person who enunciates it; to see that person as one whose beliefs are formed merely by testing which way the political wind blows.
We should not be too hasty in reaching the conclusion that a changed position is always cynical expediency. We would be telling our leaders that they should only believe what they did twenty, thirty, or forty years ago. The person who remains steadfast to all opinions and beliefs is a person who has gained no new knowledge, who has not learned from experience. In other words, a fool. I am reminded of a character in the play Wolf Hall who concluded that Thomas Moore could not be trusted because Moore continued to believe everything he had learned growing up. On the other hand, we don’t want someone who merely tergiversates. The person who repeatedly swings rapidly from one opinion to another can’t be a good leader.
(Continued May 6)