Columns » John Brummett

Broken commitment — how bad?

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Wes Clark was explaining why he spoke at a Democratic Party fund-raiser and extolled Mike Beebe for governor while Clark’s former aide, Bill Halter, who was formally exploring running against Beebe, stood in the audience.

It was nothing against Halter, Clark told me. He said he liked Halter and understood with regret that his presidential campaign had become so laden with internal tugs-of-war that Halter found it necessary to leave. But he said he’d long before made a commitment
to Beebe. He said he valued commitments. He said he respected those who told him in 2003 that they would support his bid for the Democratic nomination except that he’d entered late and they’d already committed to someone else.

That brings us to today’s poser: Where do we draw that line between changing your mind and breaking your word?


Take this 18-year-old football kid in Springdale. I worry about the lad. He’s getting entirely too much acclaim entirely too soon. He’s been named the best high school football player in the country when, in fact, he wasn’t the best player on his team this
season. In pre-adulthood, he’s been assigned the pressure of singularly rescuing that sad and silly soap opera that masquerades as a football program at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

The essence of a young life at such an exciting juncture ought to be optimism, not angst or public glare or public criticism. This apparently is a nice youngster who made a 26 on his ACT. That gives him a shot, with luck and good choices, at a decent quality
of life. His college selection ought to be personal, studied and purely positive, a blessing of opportunity. It should not be anybody else’s business.


Months ago he orally committed to this soap opera at Fayetteville. Now he has “de-committed,” to use a horrid excuse for a word, and declared himself open to the overtures of Notre Dame.


Has he broken his word? Is he ethically bound to that previously given word? Or is he entitled to change his mind if his mind tells him he erred before and should not squander what he now sees as a possibly better opportunity?


He was under pressure before from his high school coach to get the recruitment circus out of the way before the season started. He was obliging someone else’s interests, in other words. And he was but a boy.


Let’s say some early supporter of Joe Lieberman’s presidential bid had called Lieberman and said, “Hey, Joe. I love you, man. But you’re not gonna win. And I didn’t know Wes Clark was gonna run. I gotta go with him, Joe. I’m sorry. I know I committed to you. But
things change. I just think Clark is best for the party, and therefore the country.”


What would have been so wrong with that?


If I seem especially sensitive, be aware that twice in my life I’ve told a newspaper I was coming to work for it, then blown it off when another deal I deemed better came along.


I’ve actually consulted theological thought. There I’ve found what seems to be prevailing theory. It’s that lying, which is very bad, occurs when you make a commitment knowing you will not keep it. Making a commitment you intend to keep, then abandoning it when your mind changes, or circumstances do, is not as bad as lying. The fault in that case — or so the theory goes — is acting rashly, without sufficient thought.


Let’s consider this set of rules: 1. Never say you’ll do something knowing you won’t. 2. Never make a commitment without deep deliberation producing thorough confidence you will keep the commitment. 3. Have a very substantial reason if you abandon a
commitment you’d had every confident intention to keep.


Anybody thinking he can improve on those rules should feel free to Let him be, for goodness sakes.

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