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Being wrong is often the first step toward being right

January 25, 2009

How strongly do you feel that you are right? About anything - political issues, stock picks, the Super Bowl outcome.

To me, perhaps the most meaningful line of President Obama's inaugural address was the pre-emptive admission that his administration would make its share of goofs. Being right is a lot more important than believing you are right and you are a lot more disposed to get it right if you can admit sometimes that you are wrong.

There is a strong attachment to being right, since this is a direct reflection on the ego. But when ego marches boldly in, there is less of a chance that failures will be recognized as failures and a new course pursued. That is what requires spin, or an intellectual three-card monty to make others - and most of all yourself - believe that wrong is right.

This might be among the greatest failings of the Bush administration. When circumstances proved that it was in error it did not change course, it just argued all the harder that it had been right all along, but others were too blind to see it.

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Asked about his mistakes, Bush said it was probably wrong to hang the "Mission Accomplished" banner from the warship following the seizure of Baghdad. Not that the whole war had been wrong, just a maltimed sheet of cloth.

This perceived infallibility saturated the administration. Employees were hired based on their loyalty to Bush and his ideas, not because they had any ideas of their own. That can be fine if you are assured of being right, but in life there are no such guarantees. Brilliant people on both sides of the fence have argued that there is, or is not, a God. Well - half of these brilliant people are dead wrong, a fact which tarnishes their brilliance.

Andrew Carnegie, one of America's captains of industry and a founder of what would become U.S. Steel, was blunt about his success: You don't need to be terribly smart, just smart enough to surround yourself with smart people.

Of course there are two kinds of smart. Many are the geniuses who are dead certain of their convictions. But a more effective kind of smart is one who realizes there are no simple answers to complicated questions. A wag once said that if you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, perhaps it's because you don't understand the situation.

It's easy to take a stand for or against anything from universal health care to the privatization of Social Security. But the truth likely is that neither side is entirely right or wrong. The only way to know for sure is through experimentation to learn what works and what doesn't.

The only way to know is to go into an issue admitting that you don't.

Half the time you will be right and half the time you will be wrong. It's only after you taste the pudding's proof that you know for certain.

The great irony of the last two decades of conservatism is that in one element it so resembled the communistic ideal that it so despised - that is, the purge of anyone who did not tow the party line. From Bush's attorney general scandals to former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich's career-killing "Prince of Darkness," the message has been the same: Agree with us, or get out. Inbreeding works the same in politics as it does in livestock. If everything goes absolutely correctly, it can yield some spectacular results. But if one little thing goes wrong, you can wind up with a policy with three eyeballs. The difference is that farmers are smart enough to cull the freaks.

Naturally, Democrats are not, and have not, been immune to the same trap. But power is like water - the tighter you try to clasp it in your fist, the more it squirts out. Cup your hand and let everyone drink, and it lasts a lot longer.

A new administration - any administration - that can admit up-front that it doesn't have all the answers is already one step ahead of the game.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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