Elephant memory scrutiny

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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With record temperatures all around us, it’s hard for the presidential candidates not to work up a sweat. As I stood in my kitchen stirring my evening dinner and watching the televised Republican presidential candidates debate on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” I could barely contain my laughter when the candidates had to answer a simple question about the defining mistakes of their life.

The question came from a viewer in Idaho who clearly thought the candidates’ answers could shed light on how they would govern or on some special previously unseen presidential quality. Given the propensity of the current commander in chief to rarely — if at all — admit to mistakes (such as, oh, a whopper like failing to properly plan for the consequences of invading another country), I thought the candidates would give us some interesting answers.

Fat chance.

If only I had the memory of a Republican, life would be so much easier. That way, I could forget every mistake I’ve made, free to live blissfully unburdened by regret and remorse. What other possible explanation could there be for Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas saying that the defining mistake of his life was not telling his wife and kids more frequently that he loves them? Strange that members of a party represented by an elephant should have such genetically faulty memories.

Surely the good senator doesn’t think a lack of daily “I love yous” is the defining mistake of his life. And if he does, shouldn’t he have remedied it by now? I mean, of all life’s defining mistakes, correcting this is a no-brainer that involves using three words. If Mr. Brownback hasn’t figured this out, I’m terrified by the prospect of his problem-solving abilities being pitted against Iraq or Social Security.

God was a prevalent theme as the Republican candidates all but trampled each other for the title “Holier than Thou Chief.” Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado said his defining mistake was taking 30 years to welcome Jesus Christ as his personal savior. If that’s his greatest mistake, then surely Mr. Tancredo’s second-greatest is his blatant attempt to exploit his religious beliefs for the sake of partisan political gain at the ballot box — on Sunday morning, no less.

Now, I had to admire former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tacit admission that his mistakes need a higher power and more time than either Mr. Stephanopoulos or ABC could offer. “To have a description of my mistakes in 30 seconds?” he asked in obvious disbelief. The Catholic, current Republican front-runner then admitted the need for a priest: “Your father is a priest. I’m going to explain it to your father, not to you.” (Note: Mr. Stephanopoulos‘ father is a Greek Orthodox priest.) It was probably the best answer of all the candidates — not the smartest, but certainly the most honest.

Then again, if Mr. Giuliani wanted to give us a real glimpse into the inner confessional of his soul, he might have said marrying his first wife, who was his second cousin, was his defining mistake. Or using a press conference to tell his second wife and their two children that he was leaving said wife and mother. Ask yourself this question: What possible mistake could Mr. Giuliani have made to make his daughter join an online networking group of Barack Obama supporters? I hope his priest is able to help him work through it.

There is no shame in making mistakes. Make enough decisions and you’ll eventually make one, defining or otherwise. These men are not new to public office or the spotlight. Some of them, like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who admitted making a mistake by going to a meeting, did not fill in the details. That “meeting” pulled Mr. McCain into the Keating Five scandal when Mr. McCain allegedly intervened with federal regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a political donor who owned a troubled savings and loan. Keating later served time for breaking the law.

Just to be fair, let me state that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s comments about being wrong for supporting abortion rights when he knew in his heart that he was “deeply opposed” makes me believe that he will change with the weather. California Rep. Duncan Hunter’s comments that he thought of running as a Democrat in his first election was somewhat odd. So what? I once voted for a Republican because the Democrat running was corrupt. That doesn’t make me a bad person, just an informed voter.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s assertion that he did not take care of his personal health was an important omission, but is that all? Well, no candidate running for public office is perfect. What is important is the ability to recognize, admit and correct mistakes, which is what this question attempted to tease out. Who was humble enough, self-reflective enough and honest enough to admit a real, sincere mistake?

Unfortunately, no one was. Unwillingness to admit a mistake and correct it is what keeps us neck-deep in the Iraq quagmire. It’s also what keeps the country separate on issues that should unite us, like fixing our ailing infrastructure or stopping the record number of foreclosures.

I am disappointed by some of the weak, evasive and so-called politically correct answers given by the candidates, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. Nor should the candidates be when the voters finally decide on who is willing to level with them and just simply tell the truth — warts and all.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and NPR, contributing columnist to Roll Call, and former campaign manager for Al Gore.

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