Former Indy mayor grew from experiences

INDIANAPOLIS

Steve Goldsmith says three words.

“I was wrong.”

He follows with another three.

“They were right.”

The former two-term mayor of Indianapolis and I are talking about historic preservation for an upcoming documentary. Goldsmith specifically is addressing clashes more than 20 years old over the development of Circle Centre Mall in downtown Indianapolis.

Goldsmith, then mayor, butted heads with historic preservationists over whether to preserve the existing building structures of the downtown mall. The preservationists prevailed.

Goldsmith, in hindsight, acknowledges it would have been a mistake to try to put a suburban style mall in the heart of a city.

I was wrong. They were right.

As Goldsmith talks, I can’t help but think how rare it is to have political leaders acknowledge their fallibility – their basic humanity.

The pressure to project confidence and certainty is so great that they almost never acknowledge that they’ve made a mistake or a miscalculation. When we also factor in the partisan and ideological imperatives – the need to assert that Obamacare is going to destroy the economy even as the Dow does a steady climb and unemployment numbers drop or, conversely, that the health care reforms are working beautifully while premiums in some places soar – we can see how hard it is for leaders to own up to their missteps.

That’s a pity, for a couple reasons.

The first is that it creates the false impression that we’re electing something akin to divine beings, rather than people who are just like us. The notion that our elected officials are somehow impervious to the limitations that afflict the rest of humanity creates unrealistic expectations, dooming leaders to failure and allowing citizens themselves to evade responsibility for the choices they’ve made.

The second reason, though, is that it limits – and may even eliminate – our leaders’ possibilities for growth.

I’ve written before that Goldsmith was a good public servant during his days in office nearly 20 years ago, but that he would be an even better one now.

That’s because experience has helped to shape and sharpen his views. He knows he’s made some mistakes, but he’s acknowledged them – and, more important, he’s learned from them.

Time has made him a deeper and more substantial figure, as it does for all those who are open to new information and attuned to the reality that life is an ongoing and unending lesson.

The person who doesn’t learn and doesn’t change from the experience of living either isn’t paying attention or is lying to himself or herself.

I was wrong. They were right.

Allowing our leaders the freedom to acknowledge mistakes also would accomplish something else.

It would take a lot of the poison out of the system.

Part of the reason a genuine apology so often works to conciliate is that it reassures us that a mistake was an honest one that did not come from malice or a desire to harm others. An apology or just admitting a misstep acknowledges the importance of the needs and feelings of others.

It says that, despite differences of opinion, we all matter.

In a country in which it has become oh so easy for us to see those with whom we disagree as obstacles to overcome or destroy and not as fellow human beings, that’s an important thing to remember.

I was wrong. They were right.

Such simple words from Steve Goldsmith.

But they carry with them so much wisdom.

So much grace.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to editorial@therepublic.com.