In the current political season a popular media game is catching someone saying something today that is the opposite of what they said on videotape some years ago. The person is thereafter vilified either for hypocrisy, lying, being indecisive or for cynically saying something he really doesn’t believe in order to gain votes. Jon Stewart’s the Daily Show is by the far the best at this. While any of these is possible I think these “gotcha” moments ignore a third possibility: the person simply may have changed his position. I am not saying I agree with either the previous or the present position (take Mitt Romney for example) but I disagree with  seeing change only as a sign of weakness instead of potentially one of strength.

A few weeks ago “60 Minutes” did a profile of the person who had developed a pledge that many Republicans had signed vowing to reduce the size of government.  He said that this idea of smaller government was something he had been pursuing since the age of thirteen.  He said this as a badge of pride but I immediately began to wonder.  I certainly don’t still believe in many of the things I did at thirteen and if I did I would be more embarrassed than proud. I would like to believe that I’ve learned something since then, grown and matured. It was kind of frightening to hear that Republican congressional representatives had agreed with and promised to enact the political and economic ideas of a thirteen year old boy. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” 1 Corinthians 13:11.

I went to a talk a few years ago by that 80-year-old political veteran and former presidential campaigner Eugene McCarthy who said something interesting.  Looking back on his political career he thought that the best president the country could elect was one who could change from strongly held positions once elected.  He cited Richard Nixon whose hawkish view on communist China did not prevent him from being the one to bring about formal political ties and a rapprochement between the two countries. This of course led to one of my favorite moments in the Star Trek movies when Mr. Spock quotes that old Vulcan saying “only Nixon could go to China.” The increased information flow of the presidency, political reality and simply learning on the job should produce growth and maturity that allow presidents to change. It is the ideologically charged atmosphere, the no compromise mentality, and the increased media glare that has caused us to undervalue a quality that we should look for in our presidential candidates.

In his essay Self-Reliance Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” In the essay Emerson is trying to convince people, especially politicians, to break away from the conventional wisdom and to take principled stands based on morality and ethics.  In modern politics the idea of principled stands has been perverted into holding “foolish consistencies” rather than the change he was advocating. Even worse those foolish consistencies are themselves made up strangely inconsistent things like being pro-life and also pro-death penalty. Life for a president, to cite the obvious, will be complex.  We need someone who can improvise around a theme rather than blindly follow a melody laid down beforehand. We need someone who can grow.  We need someone who can learn from both mistakes and new information.  We need someone who can change as circumstances change. In short we need a flip flopper.

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