October 28, 2004

"Thinking Man" for president: Kerry realistically runs in flip-flops

We're well into autumn by now, but, in some ways, the right still wants to discuss summer fashion.

Bush supporters distributed flip-flop sandals with John Kerry's name on them to delegates at the Republican convention last month. And remember that old television hit "Flipper?" The Republican National Committee apparently made and distributed an 11-minute clip meant to show John Kerry contradicting himself set to that show's theme song. Needless to say, the Bush campaign has been emphatically pushing the "flip flop" button in its attacks against Kerry—it's even gone as far as putting in a Kerry-flip-flop-of-the-day section on it's website.

But what the Bush team seemingly flips about the most when it comes to Kerry may prove indicative of the latter's better qualities.

If you go to this school, you (assumedly) know that Socrates was big on rethinking his conclusions, subscribing to the notion that the one who knows he is ignorant is the "wisest" of them all. Like Socrates, Kerry likes to reassess his stances in a confidently humble manner. Conservatives and inattentive moderates see his nuanced views as grounds to call him a flip-flopper. His opponents called Socrates the "gadfly" of Athens, nothing more than a nuisance with his head in the clouds, unrealistically mulling over questions for way too long. It's important to note that similar accusations have been made against Kerry. People have claimed: "he's too intellectual," "He changes his mind too often," or "He's a nutty professor who cannot make wise decisions as a leader in the real world."

In the end, however, Kerry's commitment to adapt his perspectives to the changing issues at hand make him a more viable, realistic candidate. He sees the grays in the world, unlike his opponent.

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine ("Without a Doubt," by Ron Suskind, October 17) divulged President Bush's experiences at Harvard Business School (HBS). Students at HBS are taught the famous "case method," by which they are forced to come up with snappy, confident solutions to business problems. According to Suskind, "[Such cases and solutions] promote rigidity, inappropriate surety." He says that many HBS graduates unexpectedly find, upon entering the real world, that problems aren't solved so easily, and that you cannot afford such blind confidence in what you deem easy fixes—because the world is more complex and nuanced than that.

And if the world were a glove, John Kerry's complex and nuanced methodology would be the hand that fit it. He has appropriately given consideration to both sides in significant matters of contention in this war and in general. Still, he isn't wishy-washy; he remains forthright with his opinions—they are simply so original in their specificity and nuance that one may often mistake them for vague. Unfortunately, our eyes have grown accustomed to the crisp, thinking-within-the-box responses that most politicians today put out there to gain an easy constituency. With John Kerry, as with any fine wine, you have to pay attention to know where he stands and to appreciate the subtle dexterity behind his stances.

People too often take politicians' words simply on their outward appearance: if they understand what he's saying, they'll either buy it or they won't. If it's simple and it's repeated, it's too easily bought. Bush's argument that Kerry is a flip flopper has been repeated so often that we forget that this name, flip-flopper, has stigma it doesn't deserve. So I encourage you, if you actually want to understand the deliberated reasons behind Kerry's changes of mind, to go to his website instead of being a lightweight to the ad hominem politics of labels. But while you explore, perhaps you'll keep my words in mind.

In Legal Reasoning, a class I'm taking this quarter, we explore the nuance—and the reality—behind the courtroom, as well as the dynamic process by which the law evolves. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was known for boxing real life into the law. Opinions in his style often resulted in people getting shafted due to strict adherence to a legal hyper-technicality. On the other end of the spectrum, Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo tried to fit the law into real life. He argued that the law exists to make the market more efficient, and not vice versa. Thus, as the market evolves, the law—and decisions—must as well. This philosophy often allowed for moral and social norms—common sense—to enter the courts. His style was flexible; Holmes's was rigid.

To Dubya's overconfident pen—a pen that irrevocably signed us into war, deficits, and dependencies on scattered priorities—John Kerry's pencil may second-guess and erase itself. But it too manages to write, albeit not too confidently where it would cheat us of the best words an ever-thinking mind can produce.

According to the New York Times, President Bush once insisted that Sweden, not Switzerland, was neutral, even after being corrected by 25-year congressman and Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, that Sweden, not Switzerland, was neutral. The problem is not so much that he was wrong the first time, but rather that he insisted he was right. That's also his problem with this war—he will insist to the death that his decisions were flawless. Much more respectable would be a president who knows his own humility; that you are allowed to change your mind, not arbitrarily, but based on the circumstances. Some may call this flip-flopping. I call it being realistic.