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When the president says, “I screwed up”

Just when I was getting used to the welcome but startling notion of a black president who invites his opponents and their kids to watch the Superbowl at the White House, Barack Obama surprised me again. He told NBC News, “I think I screwed up.”Obama

That he had, no question.

I cast my vote for Mr. Transparency, when I wept with relief on election night, when I pondered the stripped-down eloquence of the inaugural address, with its sermon-like call for sacrifice and responsibility, I could almost believe that the age of honest leadership might be at hand. Then came the Daschle affair, with its familiar taint of cronyism, expediency and slipshod background checks. Oh, for God’s sake, I thought. Forget the audacity of hope. Can any president resist the audacity of stonewalling?

This president did, if not right away. “I’ve got to own up to my mistake,” he said

I never heard such a frank admission from the leader of the free world. I had rolled my eyes at George W. Bush’s implication, in a less-than-frank exit interview, that weapons of destruction still lurk somewhere in Iraq. I had seen Bill Clinton deny that he ever had sex with Monica Lewinsky until the sheer weight of evidence exposed him as a liar. I remembered the shameless Richard Nixon pulling out all the stops to conceal the Watergate scandal.

As presidential evasions go, Obama’s initial defense of his pal Tom Daschle was pretty small-time—the kind of error I’ve been known to make myself when the heat is on and pressure trumps my principles. I think of myself as a champion of honesty. And yet I have been known to duck the truth because I can’t bear to say, “I was wrong.”

Like a good many people, I want to be right. Being right gives me a sense of control that borders on invincibility. To admit that I’m wrong is to to lay down my imaginary shield and expose myself to the censure—maybe even the rejection—of those who have seen my failings up close. Thank goodness I don’t have to come clean on TV.

Once in my corporate life I said something inexcusably thoughtless to a staffer, a protegee of mine. It was one of those unguarded remarks that seem funny to no one but the speaker. And because I’d let it slip in front of other people, it humiliated my colleague. She retreated to her office and closed the door with a bang.

By this stage in my career I knew enough not to tell myself, “She’ll get over it.” What I didn’t understand was the depth of her pain. I thought a quick “I’m sorry” would take care of things, but she didn’t accept my apology. In her tight lips and tear-streaked face, I saw the imprint of my error. To restore good will, I’d have to close the gap between what I believed in (dignity, fairness, collaboration) and what I’d just done. I took a deep breath and said, “What you saw just now was not the real me. It’s my own fault that you’re not persuaded. But I promise I’ll do my best to win back your trust.” I made good on that promise, and we’re friends today.

In his inauguration speech Obama said, “…we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.” He was referring to the nation, but he might just as well have been speaking of himself—and of everyone who aims high. He clearly aspires to be an exceptional president, just as I aspired to be an exceptional manager and mentor. Yet every day, hour by hour, the whole world judges the alignment between his beliefs and his actions. He’s too smart and too ambitious not to know that he’ll make bigger mistakes than Daschle. There are many who would argue that he already has.

I wonder why he wanted this most perilously daunting of jobs, in which it often seems that there is no right course and the best any leader can hope for is is to find the least dangerous course. Still, I’m glad that he did want the job, and that he’s in the Oval Office—trying in his flawed human fashion to be the president we elected.

Posted by Rona

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