Humility and the Presidency

05/26/2015 06:37 am ET | Updated May 26, 2016

As the field of presidential candidates grows, so does the absolute certainty with which they claim to understand what ails the nation and how to fix it. There is a place for confidence and optimism in presidential politics, but there should also be a place for caution and uncertainty. Yet the circumspection we value as an asset in facing our personal challenges and our decisions on how to confront them seems unwanted if not scorned by both candidates and voters. The admission of previous error, of a change in views on important issues, of the need to learn more are treated as weaknesses, flip-flopping, and evidence of unpreparedness for high office.

Americans used to admire leaders with the humility to doubt themselves. When George Washington accepted command of the Continental Army on June 16, 1775, he told the Congress that " I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important Trust." When he announced his decision to step down after two terms as president, he said that "in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors."

When Abraham Lincoln sent his annual message to Congress on December 1, 1862, three months after the massive loss of life at Antietam and one month before signing the Emancipation Proclamation -- one event he despaired to understand and the other whose impact he could not predict -- he said that "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. . . . As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

Washington knew his education was deficient before he accepted the presidency. Lincoln described his own schooling, in an interview with a reporter when he was a member of Congress, in two humble words: "Education defective."

Both men, as president, acted with steadfastness -- yet it was a confidence anchored in humility, in an understanding of their limits, and in respectful awe in the face of forces beyond their full comprehension and control.

Today, presidential candidates -- and presidents -- display a different set of character traits. They rarely admit to doubt about their views or abilities. Their pre-election biographies are aimed at burnishing their images and highlighting their achievements and clear vision. Their post-presidential memoirs seem aimed at justifying their decisions (and too often at making themselves into highly-paid authors and speakers). Washington wanted to be like Cincinnatus, retiring to his farm. Lincoln never got the chance. Yet their achievements -- and their character -- clothed them in honor. Today's ex-presidents too often seek the vestments of celebrity.

Candidates today seem more focused on what they are convinced the nation needs to understand than on the gaps in their own knowledge and experience. And, unlike Washington and Lincoln, they use their visions to divide rather than unify, treating passionate interests not as Madisonian factions to be cooled but as emotions to be inflamed in the desire to enhance voter turnout.

As voters -- in primaries and in the general election -- we are part of the problem. On the far left and on the far right, we have the same self-righteousness we find in our candidates, sending them the message that any deviation in orthodoxy, any doubt or humility, is a cause for abandoning them. In the center, where we might welcome more humility and moderation, we just don't vote in sufficient percentages to reward such behavior in the candidates.

America is filled, the polls tell us, with people convinced we are on the wrong track. Elections are filled with people convinced they know exactly what the right track is. We might all do better by acknowledging and rewarding those voices that tell us that both kinds of certainty too often lead to disaster.