Like most of us, I was taught that being stubborn was a fault. When I was stubborn as a child, my parents scolded me. When I was stubborn as a student, my teachers chided me. “Don’t be stubborn,” they all said. “You’ve got to see the other side, too.”
But when it comes to the presidential election, stubbornness is suddenly an American virtue.
It may even determine the winner.
President George W. Bush excels at being stubborn. Say what you will about the commander in chief: He doesn’t change his mind. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t tell voters “a leader must be firm in his decisions.”
And so, even during a week when hostages have their heads cut off, we are told, as we are always told, that things in Iraq are improving, that the future is bright.
And despite endless proof to the contrary from committees and investigations — even those under his control — Bush insists that Sept. 11 and the invasion of Iraq are inexorably connected.
And if a bad jobs report comes out, or the budget deficit is projected into the stratosphere, Bush insists the economy is good and growing.
And despite howling from the education community, he insists his No Child Left Behind idea is working.
He says these things over and over. He will not be moved. He clings to the same line he gave yesterday, the day before and the month before.
And amazingly, many Americans see this as strength.
On the other hand . . .
Meanwhile, Sen. John Kerry’s vacillations are viewed as weakness. The fact that he might vote one way for a certain part of the Iraq war, and vote another way later is not viewed as nuance, it’s ineptitude. He’s a stumbling politician who blows in the wind. Never mind that many Americans have changed their minds on Iraq; if a leader does it, he’s incompetent.
In a recent issue of Time, I read several letters to the editor. One said, “I love that the president is stubborn enough to stick to his guns . . .”
The letter came from Texas, but it could have come from anywhere. In a world where everything is so fast, so complex, where you don’t know who owns the company that owns your company, we cherish simplicity. We want it fast and understandable.
For this, the president has been well coached by his handlers. Say the same thing. Stick by your guns. A certain number will believe you. A certain number will think you’re lying.
But an even bigger number will admire you for not changing your mind.
Folks, I don’t care what your political persuasion, this is a dangerous quality for us to admire.
There’s no debating it
Think of how far bad leaders could go by refusing to budge on their rhetoric — especially if it makes them popular! There’s a famous quote from Winston Churchill that says: “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
There’s also a sentiment from Gandhi who basically said — and I’m paraphrasing here — “I want to be able to change my mind as I age, because it shows I am gaining wisdom.” That makes sense, doesn’t it?
Look. No one wants a wishy-washy president. But shouldn’t we work a little harder before we celebrate mere repetition? The fact is, Bush has changed his tack countless times. He ran in 2000 claiming he wasn’t into nation building (which he now is), wasn’t into sending troops to war (which he now has), and was only into “uniting, not dividing” (the single biggest hypocrisy of his term).
But he never speaks about such things. He doesn’t say, “I learned from my mistakes.” The past disappears, and there are only repeated lines, with clenched fists, and the admonishing of others who can’t stick “to firm decisions.”
This week, Bush and Kerry debate for the first time. I promise you, what most people will remember will not be some reasoned explanation of a new policy, but a simple sentence that seems unflinching. It makes me wonder when we started worshiping stubbornness, and where have all those parents and teachers gone?
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org