Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ford, Nixon, and the Decisions We Make

The death of President Gerald Ford has reopened an old debate: Should he have pardoned Nixon for the crimes he committed during the Watergate scandal? The debate has bubbled up in both the blogosphere and in the letters to the editor in most newspapers. It's not necessary for me to provide any links; the debate is everywhere. It got me thinking about decision-making and the guilt we have when our decisions go wrong.

Many of my clients come to me saying, "If only I had done X instead of Y, things would have been better." For example, "If I stayed with my old job, and not taken that new job, I wouldn't have been fired, and I'd be able to pay for my kid's college today. My kids are suffering from my bad decision."

In order to help my clients with their guilt, I teach them about the reality of decision-making. Ford's decision to pardon Nixon is an excellent example. To make the decision, Ford asked himself, "What are the most likely outcomes if I pardon Nixon, and what are the most likely outcomes if I don't? Which outcomes would serve the greater good?" Ford thought that pardoning Nixon would bring the Watergate scandal to a quick end. Nixon deserved to be punished, but resigning in disgrace was enough punishment for him. I'm sure he knew people would disagree with his decision, and that would have political consequences for him.

In contrast, Ford thought, if Nixon were to be prosecuted, the investigation, the trial, and the appeals would drag on for years. There was no guarantee that Nixon would have been convicted. This, too would have political consequences for the Republican Party. Or, if Nixon was convicted, would it be overturned on appeal? So, Ford decided to pardon Nixon, thinking this would serve the greater good.

Today, Ford's critics argue that the country needed Nixon to be tried for his crimes if the country to truly recover from Watergate. They argue that pardoning Nixon increased cynicism about government by showing the powerful were above the law. Some say that the more recent scandals stem from that cynicism. They conclude that all the problems Ford was concerned about were worth it for the country to heal.

The old admonition, "Hindsight is 20-20," is relevant here. But, even in hindsight, notice that time only goes forward. There is no way for us to go back again, and find out what would have happened if Ford hadn't pardoned Nixon. So, we don't really know "what would have happened if...."

Imagine this scenario: Ford doesn't pardon Nixon. There's a long, drawn out, O. J. Simpson-esque trial, and Nixon is found guilty. He appeals, and his conviction is overturned because the jury wasn't impartial. The prosecutor, knowing a lost cause when he sees it, doesn't try Nixon again. How much cynicism would that engender? What would happen then?

At this point in the scenario, I'm overwhelmed by the possibilities. It's impossible to know what would happen next, especially as we become more removed from the original choice. Each choice opens up new choices and new possible outcomes.

OK, so we never have any way of knowing "What would happen if...." Does that mean we can't evaluate our decisions at all? Is there anything like a good or bad decision? Is this another fuzzy-headed liberal way of avoiding consequences? No. We can evaluate our decisions, but we have to change the way we look at them.

First, let me summarize:

1. When me make decisions, we are guessing about future outcomes. We cannot know how every possible decision might turn out.

2. We can never know what would have happened if we made a different choice.

3. All we can ever know is how our choices have affected us and are affecting us. Tomorrow, things might change completely.

4. Past choices continue to affect us. They open up some choices to us and limit others.

It is therefore unrealistic to evaluate a decision as "good" or "bad". Choices don't "work out." Instead, they put us on paths. Those paths may take us to places that are more or less desirable, but until we die, those paths don't end. Instead of asking, "Did I make a good decision?" I should instead ask:

1. Did I make the decision well? Did I consider a range of possible alternatives, consider my values, consult others, and think through my decision carefully? Or, did I just jump into it without any forethought?

2. Am I happy with the path I'm on as a result of my decisions?

Notice the implications here. We can make a decision carefully, and be unhappy with where it took us. In the same way, we can make a decision impulsively, and it takes us to some very good places. Overall, though, if we make our decisions carefully, we have a better chance at being happy with the path we take.

So, when my clients ask, "How could I have been so stupid as to do that?" I teach them it's OK to say, "It seemed like a good idea at the time." Because time only goes forward, we can't go back and change our decisions. However, we can always make more decisions and find better paths for our lives.

President Ford made a decision which may have cost him the presidency. That path must have been a difficult path for him. Personally, I agreed with the choice he made, although for other reasons, I voted against him. I respect him deeply, though. Despite pardoning Nixon, Ford still restored confidence in the presidency. He did it by making other choices throughout his presidency. I'm going to miss him. After the mess Bush has made, we desperately need another Gerald Ford.

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