Friday, June 4, 2010

Two Bad Calls

Let me say up front that I know that these are not really comparable situations. Apples, oranges, kiwi fruit. I know.

But in the past couple of days, stories about two really bad decisions have crossed my radar screen, and the contrast between the how the two men who made them handled questions about them could not be more stark.

The first one will be familiar to any baseball fan, and to not a few others: the blown call by umpire Jim Joyce that cost Armando Galarraga what would have been the third perfect game in the first third of this major league baseball season. If you missed it, the Detroit Tigers pitcher was one out from perfection. He had set down the first 26 batters to face him--no hits, no walks, no errors. No one had reached base. One more and he'd have a perfect game. The 27th batter hit a ground ball between first and second. The first basemen fielded it, turned and threw to the pitcher covering at first for what the announcers prematurely called the final out. But the umpire called the runner safe, though the replay clearly showed the throw beat the runner. And just like that, what should have been a perfect game became just another one-hitter.

If that were all there was to the story, it would be extraordinary enough. But two things add to the poignancy of the story. First, the camera shot clearly shows Galarraga's reaction to the call. Volcanic rage? Stunned disbelief? No. He smiled. He looked almost bemused. And he did not argue the call (though others did for him). It was an amazing example of personal grace.

What most impressed me most, however, was the umpire. After the game, he watched the replay and took questions from reporters. When asked about it, he said simply and clearly: "I did not get the call correct. I kicked the shit out of it." Joyce did not simply admit his mistake, however. When a reporter tried to give him an out and asked if maybe he didn't have a good angle, he refused to take it: "I had great positioning on it," Joyce said. "I just missed the damn call." Joyce also refused to minimize what he had done: "This isn't *a* call. This is a history call.... I took a perfect game away from that kid over there who worked his ass off all night. It's probably the most important call of my career and I missed it." When asked about what the Detroit manager and players said to him about it, Joyce took that with grace as well: "I don't blame any one of those guys over there for saying whatever they said to me." Joyce later met with Galarraga and personally apologized.

Joyce was a model of accountability and responsibility. He did not hide, he did not shift blame, he did not deny. He admitted his mistake, took responsibility, and apologized.

In contrast, there was this story, in which former President George W. Bush, when asked about water-boarding said "Yeah, we water-boarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.... I'd do it again." I won't rehash the history of this torture technique here, except to note that prior to its adoption by the Bush administration, it was basically universally accepted as torture. I'd be willing to accept that in the heat of the moment, Bush may have made a bad call, may have thought it was right at the time. But now, years later, not only does he not admit error, he still cannot even entertain the notion that it might have been a mistake.

Bush was fairly infamous as president for not admitting any error. Most notably, when asked in a press conference in April 2004 to name his biggest mistake, he could not think of any, and tried to laugh it off by saying "Maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one." But when asked again a year and half later, in December 2005, Bush again gave no answer--instead, he questioned the motives of the questioner: "The last time those questions were asked, I really felt like it was an attempt for me to say it was a mistake to go into Iraq. And it wasn't a mistake to go into Iraq."

Now, I realize that Bush does not believe that it was a mistake for his administration to cross that awful line into adopting torture as an official American policy, and that he does not believe invading Iraq was a mistake. I also recognize that Bush can't, unlike Joyce, simply look at a replay and see objective evidence of whether or not he made the right call.

What bothers me most is the unreflective character of Bush's response. He seems unwilling to even consider that he might have been wrong. Perhaps it is inevitable that presidents will tend to refuse to publicly consider that they may have erred. Harry Truman, for example, always insisted that he never doubted that he made the right decision about dropping the atomic bombs. Nearly 20 years afterward, in 1963, Truman wrote: "I have no regrets, and under the same circumstances, I would do it again." He always insisted, "I did what I thought was right," and claimed he never lost any sleep over it.

I generally like Truman, and it long bothered me that he seemed so unthinkingly certain about so momentous a decision. But when doing some research for my book, The Truman Years, 1945-1953, I found out that Truman was not as certain in private as he was in public. After the second bomb was dropped, Truman reclaimed control of the bomb from the military, and said to some advisors: "The thought of wiping out another hundred thousand people was too horrible. I hate the idea of killing all those kids." And years later, when some people called for him to use the bomb again to break the stalemate of the Korean War, he refused.

Truman may well have always believed he did the right thing. But I think it says something good about the man that at least in private he did not shy away from acknowledging the terrible consequences of what he had decided, and clearly felt the grave responsibility that it placed on him. I hope that one day historians uncover similar sentiments expressed by Bush in his private moments.

But I'd feel better about both Bush and Truman had they had the confidence to express such thoughts in public, or better yet, say simply and clearly, about something substantial, "I did not get the call correct."

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