We should not want leaders who obstinately stick to old positions without their considering new knowledge that might affect that opinion. On the other hand, we should not want someone whose opinions switch more often than the Kardashians change clothes. We should want someone like Eisenhower as described by Michael Doran in Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East: “Thanks to his military experience, [President Eisenhower] was accustomed to reviewing his actions and assessing their effectiveness. When he made mistakes, he paused and thought deeply about them.” We should want leaders who continue to learn and reflect on the consequences and outcomes of their beliefs and actions.
In other words, we should want growth in our leaders. Eric Foner’s impressive book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, published in 2010, addresses the evolution in Lincoln’s opinions about race.
During his life, Lincoln said different things, often inconsistent, about slavery and race, but Foner shows that no one remark can be pulled out that encapsulates Lincoln’s views over a lifetime. Instead, as superior minds tend to do, Lincoln’s views were regularly evolving. The historian writes, “We should first bear in mind that the hallmark of Lincoln’s greatness was his capacity for growth. It is fruitless to identify a single quotation, speech, or letter as the real or quintessential Lincoln. At the time of his death, he occupied a very different position with regard to slavery and the place of blacks in American society than earlier in his life.”
The core of this exceptional president’s greatness was the ability to grow. Our leaders may not be Lincolns, but we should want them, like Lincoln, to have views that develop and evolve. What they have said at all previous stages should be weighed in judging them now, but they should not simply be bound by every previous utterance. If they remain rigidly fixed to all earlier positions, then they have learned nothing from their experiences.
Indeed, we ought to reject a leader who has never changed an opinion. That person has never made a mistake—and few gods seek public office—or they have just ignored information that would indicate when an opinion or action turned out to be wrong. We don’t like to admit that we were in error, but evidence, if we pay attention, can show that we have erred, and growth can only come by paying attention to those humbling experiences. The person who simply ignores such evidence should not be one of our leaders. What T. H. Huxley said about science, indicating how it advances, should be a benchmark for all of society: “The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”
The announcement of a new position, however, does not necessarily mean careful reconsideration and growth. Hypocrisy may be at work. Consider Robert Bork. He took legal positions in his academic writings that attracted the attention of conservatives and no doubt helped fuel his nomination to the Supreme Court, but when those same positions, which appealed to the ultra-right, threatened his confirmation chances from a more moderate and sensible Senate, he–surprise, surprise—changed them. Bork at his confirmation hearing modified or renounced many of those earlier positions that placed him far out of the legal and societal mainstream. Perhaps the changed positions showed intellectual growth, but it is possible that his original positions were not sincere. Perhaps they were merely aimed to attract conservative worship that he felt would, and did, advance his career. Or perhaps his later positions were insincere. He did not believe them but thought that he had to announce them to advance to the Supreme Court, which he desperately wanted.
Or consider some of the Democratic Senators who voted in favor of the Iraq war as proposed by George W. Bush. The majority of the Democrats in the House voted against the 2002 joint resolution that authorized the war, but the majority of Senate Democrats voted for it. (Ninety-six percent of the Republican Representatives voted for it, and only one Republican Senator—Chafee of Rhode Island—voted against it.) Why the difference between the Democrats in the House and Senate? Of course, all of them could have been sincere votes, but I was skeptical. I was especially skeptical of the sincerity of some notable Democrats. I was aware of the almost-truism, that seems more true this season than at any other time, that all Senators are hoping to be President, and I thought that some Senators may have thought that a vote against the war might be detrimental to ambitions for higher office. If the war had been successful, future voters might have seen opposition to the war as disqualifying. I wondered how sincere the support for the war was from Senators Bayh, Biden, Clinton, Daschle, Dodd, Edwards, Feinstein, Harkin, Kerry, Schumer, and others.
Later many of these Senators announced opposition to the war and explained their initial support saying that they had been misled by the Bush administration or that the conduct of the war had shown them that their vote in favor of it had been a mistake. On the other hand, to those of us who could see from before the beginning of that the war was a giant mistake that would harm this country (not to mention Iraq) for a generation or more, it was natural to wonder if that initial support was not largely a product of calculated opportunism.
But that still leaves the important question: How do we know when apologies and altered opinions and beliefs show intellectual, empathetic, or emotional growth or when they are merely hypocritically expedient?
(concluded May 8)