The Virtue of Self-Doubt

The Ten Days of Penitence culminating in Yom Kippurim usher in a period of reflection, contemplation, introspection and repentance. We look back at our past deeds and evaluate what could have been done differently or should have been done better (or not at all) before turning our attention to prospective actions, thoughts and traits. An honest appraisal of oneself is imperative as a prelude to making any real progress in one’s character development.

Earlier this summer, I received an intensive lesson in self-evaluations and re-appraisals in a trip to the great American Midwest and south, and a tour of presidential libraries. In less than a week, we visited the Truman Library (Independence MO), the Clinton Library (Little Rock AR), and the two Bush libraries in Texas (Bush II in Dallas and Bush I in College Station). Each was fascinating (they all are; I have visited most), and each was extraordinarily well done. Truman was the first to devote his post-presidency to his library, although FDR was the first president to designate his home in Hyde Park as a library and research center. (An excellent new museum just opened at the FDR Library, and was visited more recently).

Each museum has one objective and answers one general question: how does the president want to be remembered – not how the media or historians perceive him – but how does he want to be remembered? Truman emphasized his humble origins, his accidental presidency that took years to become his own, his integrity and small-town American values. Clinton’s library is an architecturally and intellectually overwhelming, and incredibly wonkish. It is as if he tried to account for every single day of his presidency; his daily schedule for every day of his presidency is neatly displayed in folders month after month, year after year (well, not every day; it was the days of “no official presidential business” that got him into trouble.) He was also the least personal of presidents, as if his entire life was about politics. All the other presidents featured their backgrounds, personal homes, lighter moments, family life, hobbies, etc. Clinton, unique among modern presidents, seemingly did not have a home – he lived in the governor’s mansion and then the White House for well over two decades, and vacations were spent at friends’ homes.

George H. W. Bush. had the most impressive personal history of any of them – having had much more life experience than the others in a variety of capacities, without complete success in any of them – from being shot down as a Navy pilot in WW II to his business career, service in Congress, variety of presidential appointments, the vice-presidency and his one-term presidency. His library devotes more time to his other careers than the others did, and naturally with special emphasis on the Gulf War during his tenure.

And the George W. Bush library was riveting, and visually spectacular. Obviously, he underscored certain things and gave short shrift to others, but one thing stood out, and maybe it was because we went to Truman on Sunday, Clinton on Monday and Bush II on Tuesday. Bush’s whole theme – like the name of his memoirs – was “Decision Points.” There is even a Decision Points Theater in his museum where visitors can stand and assess the various factors, pro and con, that went into his major decisions – the war, response to Katrina, the surge, and the financial crisis – with each issue broken down into four categories, with expert advice on both sides – and then the visitor gets to decide. It is a tiny glimpse into the life of the president, the decisions that have to be made – sometimes quickly – and how sometimes good and reasonable decisions do not turn out as hoped.

But here’s what was most impressive: Bush didn’t claim to be right on every decision. Even good decisions can sometimes go awry. He didn’t even know if it was the right decision at the time, only that it was his honest conclusion after weighing all the facts, circumstances and expert opinion. Truman was the same way; in his library, there was a large wall, that contained floor to ceiling two dozen different opinions from people as to whether Truman should have used the atomic bomb – and twice – on Japan, including a quote from Dwight Eisenhower in 1963 that he (Ike) thought it was unnecessary. Some of the quoted were quite critical of Truman. In essence, Truman didn’t claim to be right, only that he did what he thought was right – to avert the anticipated death of a million American servicemen in a land invasion of Japan. (To me, still a compelling and proper conclusion for an American Commander-in-Chief.)

There was humility in both men, the modest expression of doubt – and even in Bush I’s account of the lead up to the Gulf War, agonizing over launching it and seeking a world consensus before doing so. FDR’s new museum was similarly, and brutally, honest, with a dozen sidebars called “Confront the Issue” that featured unblemished and objective looks at FDR’s actions or inactions: did he know about Pearl Harbor before it happened? Did he provoke a war with Germany by siding with Britain and ending America’s neutrality months before December 1941? Did he do anything substantial to save Jewish refugees, beyond rhetoric? Should he have bombed the railway tracks to Auschwitz? Did he conceal his health problems from the public before the 1944 election?  Both sides were presented. Criticisms were acknowledged.

Doubt is good; it is human. It is humbling. It is worthy of a leader.

Bill Clinton’s museum stands out in that he had no doubts. It is not done in a heavy-handed way, but the idea comes through very clearly. Every issue he confronted had only one right answer – his. The only problem in his presidency was the presence of Republicans, who could only obstruct and thwart his efforts to perfect the world but little positive. Even the section on his impeachment was devoted to statements and videos of scholars saying that his was not an impeachable offense, and all about politics and personal destruction. And even some of his strengths as president – his ability to triangulate policy and compromise with Republicans – are muted in favor of his certainty of rectitude that brooks no other possibilities. He comes across, and probably is, a decent and caring person, but he has no doubts, no hesitation, no regrets and no second thoughts about any of his policies or actions. Nor, seemingly, will he abide anyone else having them.

The current occupant of the White House seems cut from the same cloth, and one would expect his presidential library and museum to countenance no dissent, no criticism, and no latitude in which there can be more than one right opinion, or any opinion not that of Obama himself. It certainly explains today’s desperate needs to avoid looking like he has erased his red line on Syria’s use of  chemical and to make the pending compromise look like it was his idea all along – and not like he has been outmaneuvered by the wily Russians. (I suppose it stands to reason that a former KGB operative should be able to outwit a former community organizer.)

This is a terrible weakness in a president, a leader or in any human being – the inability or unwillingness to take a second look and re-evaluate past decisions. The inner capacity to tolerate that one might have erred and sometimes grievously in one’s calculations, or even that one made a sound decision that subsequent events proved faulty, is critical to self-improvement and personal growth. Perhaps the weaknesses arise from personality and temperament, from insecurity born of one’s youthful experiences, or from the ubiquity of the modern media that will record for posterity every admission of failure and broadcast it repeatedly.

Whatever the reason, the days before Yom Kippurim are an ideal time for us commoners to search our hearts and ways, evaluate past conduct, rectify misdeeds, learn from our mistakes, make the appropriate changes for the future, and, in so doing, merit divine favor and grace in the year ahead.

6 responses to “The Virtue of Self-Doubt

  1. Yasher Ko’ach Rav Pruzansky for a year of stimulating essays and more of course.
    Gmar Chatimah Tovah L’Shanah Tovah Metukah uMevorechet bKol!
    A Good Finish for a Sweet New Year Blessed in All ways.

  2. simonesaesthetics

    May I quote this? I love it!

    “I suppose it stands to reason that a former KGB operative should be able to outwit a former community organizer.”

    Simone Iris Cohen, Winnipeg, Mb., Canada

  3. I don’t know what is on display in Bill Clinton’s library, but I do know that he talks endlessly about his regrets in Rwanda. He also regrets signing DOMA and went so far as to actively campaign for its repeal.

    • Note that those are not things that HE did, in which he can take personal responsibility but sort of a general responsibility. Regarding DOMA, not to be too cynical, but there was political expedience in signing it, and political expedience in supporting its repeal. I haven’t yet heard what changed his moral calculus in just one decade.

  4. Sorry, you lost me. The decision to not deploy ground troops in Rwanda was the decision of the Commander in Chief and his alone.

    As for DOMA, was it a matter of political expedience to sign it into law? Well, consider who agrees with you… Bill Clinton! That’s what he regrets.

  5. How convenient. Such regrets were not apparent in the library, nor was there any discussion of the reasons why he did not order an intervention.