David Faherty recently quoted a “famous Spanish proverb” after interviewing Sergio Garcia on the Golf Channel. The proverb says, “A wise man changes his mind. A fool never.” This put me in mind of the fact that the American public strongly dislikes politicians who change their minds. What does this say about the American public? That question in turn put me in mind of Walter Cronkite’s famous line, “We are not well educated enough to perform the act of selecting our leaders.” Walter may be right.
I recall when George McGovern ran for president and had the audacity to drop Thomas Eagleton from the ticket because he learned that the man was an alcoholic — something he should have known beforehand. But the political talking heads insisted that the fact that McGovern changed his mind was the kiss of death and, of course, he was roundly defeated in the following presidential election. This is not an isolated example; it is quite common. What does this say about us?
It says, if the Spanish are right, that McGovern was wise to change his mind, but (by implication) we are not. It would make sense to applaud a man who changes his mind when he discovers he has made a mistake rather than push ahead even though his course is headed dead-on for disaster — like the course George W. Bush pursued in Iraq, for example. I recall a friend saying she admired the Shrub because he “stuck by his guns no matter what.” Eh? No matter what? The man was dead wrong! He should have admitted his mistake and altered course. But at the cost of millions of dollars and countless American lives he didn’t and yet while his popularity rating dropped toward the end of his term, not long after leaving office it was back up to nearly 50%. Apparently a sizable portion of the voters in this country will forgive and support a politician who lies to them and undertakes a costly war against another sovereign nation without sufficient reason. But they can’t forgive and support one who changes his mind! This is worrisome indeed.
In their wisdom, the founding fathers restricted voting to those few who (a) were males, and (b) who owned property. And the popular vote was not to count in Presidential elections. In any event, the first requirement (a) has been shown to be wrong-headed, and the second (b) was probably misguided as well. But the urge here was sound: restrict the vote to those who know what the hell they are doing, or at least have a vested interest in the outcome! I once suggested to Robert Hutchins that the current American system was flawed in precisely this respect: we no longer have any requirements whatever for voting except accidents of birth and age. And age proves nothing, nor does the fact that we happened to have been born here. At the very least, we should require a coarse in civics. Naturalized citizens have to know more than those of us born in this country. Every voter should know for example, how many Senators each state has, whereas, in fact, many who vote have no idea whatever. (“Rhode Island has two? And it’s so small!” — actual response to a poll not long ago.)
We no longer require civics in our schools (or much else for that matter). Nor do we require courses in history of a population that is notoriously ignorant of history. Yet we allow citizens to vote for the people who will make the most important decisions in their country that affect them directly. This is not wise. Not only do voters seem to prefer to vote for those who “stick the course” no matter what. They also seem to prefer those who are glib and make a good impression on TV, comb their hair the way we like, or have the prettiest wives or husbands. Our standards are low and our knowledge of what it takes to make a successful politician, much less a statesman, is practically nil. Our forefathers must be rolling over in their graves.