Entry from July 10, 2015

When I was a youngster, all school children knew the story of Henry Clay’s having said, "I had rather be right than president." At least they knew the quotation, even if they didn’t always know the context of "the Great Compromiser’s" paradoxical refusal to budge from his own middle-of-the-road position on slavery, the principal matter of controversy of the day — as a result of which refusal he was attacked by his fellow Whigs and lost whatever chance he may have had at the presidency. It was a rather thrilling moment in our history and one which we may even hope to live long enough to see repeated by Donald Trump.

But now, alas, the historical profession is so far persuaded of Clay’s retrospective wrongness in not embracing the abolitionist cause that school-children are never likely to hear anything about his noble if wrong-headed stand for rightness over self-aggrandizement — or about anything else that doesn’t fit in with the simple-minded moral template that has since been imposed on American history. Thus they will not be led to wonder, as I do, what old Henry, wrong though he may have been, would have made of the curious case of a man claiming that he ought to be president because he was right.

This man, in the all-too-likely case that you haven’t heard about him, is former Senator James, "Jim," Webb of my home state of Virginia. According to The New York Times the "centerpiece" of his candidacy’s self-advertisement was "his consistent and vocal opposition to the Iraq war." In fact, it was more than just the centerpiece. In the text of his announcement as posted on his website being right about Iraq, as he trusts everyone will now see it, appears as virtually his sole qualification, apart from his military service, for the office he seeks.Or rather, it is his sole qualification apart from a number of other, lesser things he thinks he was also right about — because he "spoke out" against them or else "worked hard" towards bringing them about when he was a senator.

Oddly enough, however, he doesn’t brag of having been right about the contribution he made to the passing of Obamacare, or of his presumptive support of his party’s and his president’s other efforts fundamentally to transform this country and its institutions both before and after 2013, when he left office. But I confess that I have something of a prejudice against Senator Webb and his peculiar ideas of honor, which (as I wrote at the time) were consistent with his sitting back and allowing The Washington Post to attack Senator George Allen, his opponent in the senatorial contest of 2006, for suspected Confederate sympathies when he himself had said far more favorable things about the Confederacy — things which, for some reason, the Post chose not to report. I forbear to mention the scurrilous accounts in the right-wing press of former associates who now suggest that he has also in the past been something of a thug and a bully.

Nor do I wish to make any judgment here on the substantive question of the rightness or wrongness of the war in Iraq. I only wish to point out the foolishness of citing one’s own rightness about anything, rightly or wrongly, as a qualification for office. It implies a promise, that no one in conscience (or in honor) can properly make, of being right in the future as one has been in the past. I would much prefer to vote for someone who had been wrong but who honestly admitted it and bravely faced up to the consequences than for some popinjay silly enough to think that he and the people he was asking to vote for him could rely on his always being right about things. True, we ought to care about a candidate’s judgment as well as his character, but sometimes bragging about one’s own good judgment is itself an instance of poor judgment — as well, of course, as poor character.

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