“In politics, never retreat, never retract, never admit a mistake.” That was the strategy of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose blend of military might and political calculation nearly made him the ruler of all of Europe.
On the battlefield, there is no time for dawdling or second-guessing. So, it is only natural for some soldier-politicians to stick with what works.
And it worked pretty well for Napoleon. He went from army corporal to self-made emperor, gambling it all at times, using his never-look-back strategy to bowl over his military and political enemies.
It ended at Waterloo, where he was defeated in 1815 by British and Prussian troops. But, while his political advice to “never admit a mistake” is still conventional wisdom in the age of political spin, last week we celebrated the life of a politician who rejected that advice.
Senator John McCain shared the “take the hill” determination that many soldiers bring to civic life, a quality that serves us all well. But politically — and this was one of his best traits — McCain could make you crazy.
McCain was true to his Republican Party, most of the time. But every now and then, he would veer off, to the delight of most Democrats and the consternation of some Republicans. It was a balm for the ills of lock-step party allegiance.
When McCain cast the deciding vote to block further dismantling of Obamacare last year, Republican howls were heard from Capitol Hill to the White House. But he was a hero to the 15 million Americans who would have lost health coverage, and that was often cited during his memorials as an example of political courage.
Less talked about was his tendency to spontaneously admit his mistakes.
In 1989, when McCain was accused of improperly intervening with other senators on behalf of a shaky savings and loan, he conceded that it showed “undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do.”
Later, he called it “the worst mistake of my life.”
During his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain dodged the Confederate flag controversy in South Carolina, calling it an issue to be decided by the state. But that was not what he believed.
”I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles. I broke my promise to always tell the truth,” McCain said.
And, while the neo-con proponents of the Iraq War still hide from the truth, McCain conceded in his 2018 memoir that the war “can’t be judged as anything other than a mistake, a very serious one, and I have to accept my share of the blame for it.”
Sure, admitting mistakes can be dicey in politics and can often result in defeat for the forthright. That was Napoleon’s fear, and McCain knew that, too.
But, from his time in Vietnam, McCain also knew the danger of public lies left unaddressed. He lived by a code of honor, and sometimes he was just plain human and fell short. But, when he made a mistake, he admitted it.
We need more of that.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at [email protected]