Candidates Reveal Their Biggest Mistakes

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For the series "Primary Questions: Character, Leadership & The Candidates," CBS News anchor Katie Couric asked the 10 leading presidential candidates 10 questions designed to go beyond politics and show what really makes them tick. Below is the full transcript to the question: "What is the biggest mistake you've ever made?" Watch their answers tonight on the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric.

Check out the candidates' full responses in our "Primary Questions" video library.


Katie Couric: What is the biggest mistake you've ever made? How did you recognize it? And what did you do to change course?

Huckabee: I've made so many, there's a catalogue. And when (NOISE) I ever forget them, I just, you know, look at all the things that my critics have said, and I find that they - there's some I didn't even know.

I made a mist[ake]. I've made a lot of mistakes sometimes, particularly in maybe giving people too much benefit of the doubt, keeping people in positions that should have been let go. And sometimes you pay a big price for that. I think what I had to do is to learn that if you've got, particularly, a personnel issue, the best thing to do? Deal with it. Deal with it as quickly as possible, suffer the loss, try to clean up as much of the mess as you can and accept that you can't make it all right.

Couric: Give me an example. This is, that's sort of vague.

Huckabee: Yeah, it is vague 'cause I don't want to, you know, put anybody's name out here. There was a case in which I had a cabinet member that just simply did not mesh, not only with me, but with the rest of the cabinet [and] with his own agency. And we realized we had a problem, and I thought we could fix it. I thought we could get this worked out, give him some time. Well, it turned out we couldn't. I finally ended up terminating him, he ended up suing me, suing the state. It became very ugly, very unfortunate. We ended up winning the case, but it was a long, protracted, expensive and embarrassing situation that wouldn't have happened had I been a little bit more forceful at the very beginning. And I learned a lot from that.

Couric: Any other mistake?

Huckabee: Oh, yeah.

Couric: I mean?

Huckabee: How long you got? (LAUGHS) You got all day? You know, I think I made a lot of mistakes as a parent, not intentionally. You know, I don't think any parent makes intentional mistakes. But I was probably too lenient on my daughter and maybe too tough on my two sons. Maybe that's a dad's natural tendency. My daughter would say that I wasn't, but, you know, I may have let her get away with some things that I would never have let my son get away with, either of my two sons. Again, just in a general way, I think that I look back and realize there were times when I should have been maybe more stern with her, less stern with the boys, but the boys were older. And so, by the time she came along, I was pretty mellowed out.

Couric: And she turned out okay?

Huckabee: She turned out great. Yeah.

Couric: Not doin' prison time?

Huckabee: She gets out in three to five. No, she's doing fine. She's (LAUGHTER) I should have said, "I pardoned her just before I left office." (LAUGHS)


Couric: That brings me to my next question. Since you said you've made a lot of mistakes, what is the biggest mistake you've ever made and how did you recognize it and then change course?

McCain: Well, I'd like to say the biggest mistake was when I raised my hand after I'd been on the USS Forestal and we had a terrible fire and we'd gone back to the States and they asked for volunteers to stay. I found out, I ended up, a couple of months later, in a North Vietnamese prison camp. But that's a bit self-serving. Probably was when I attended a meeting with four other senators with some regulators who were overseeing a guy named Charlie Keating, who was a big contributor and a big, important economic factor in my home state. I shouldn't have done it. And the lesson I learned from it is not only do what you know is right, but do what you know you would be glad to see on the front page of The New York Times or the Washington Post, or watch Katie Couric talking about on the Evening News.

Couric: What did you do to change course or how did you recognize it? That mistake was sort of recognized for you, was it not?

McCain: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah, it was recognized for me. I went through two years of investigation, and I ended up being found guilty of poor judgment. But to be honest with you, it was worse than poor judgment because I created an impression of impropriety, and the thing I value more than anything else is my honor.


Couric: What is the biggest mistake you've ever made and how did you recognize it? And what did you do to change course?

Obama: Well, the biggest mistake that I ever made was when I was a teenager because I got involved with drinking and trying drugs. I was being raised by a single mom and by my grandparents, and I've written about this in my first book. You know, I was frustrated and didn't have role models out there that made sense, and so I engaged in a lot of destructive behavior. And it, I pulled out of it in my first couple of years of college because I started thinking outside of myself. I started thinking about people I met who were struggling a lot worse than I was. You know, I didn't come from a wealthy family, but it was a middle-class family and I never had to worry about whether I had enough to eat or I never had to worry about whether I had a roof over my head. And so just becoming more aware of the tough times that other people were going through, and I remember having a conversation with somebody and them saying to me that, "You know, it's not about you. It's about what you can do for other people." And something clicked in my head, and I got real serious after that and I started applying myself at school. That's how I started becoming a student activist and then, ultimately, a community organizer. And, you know, that's probably the path that I've been taking ever since. That's how I ended up where I am today.


Couric: What's the biggest mistake you've ever made? How did you recognize it and what did you do to change course?

Richardson: The biggest mistake I ever made was being too aggressive. I was in the New Mexico legislature. I wanted to get a bill passed increasing the minimum wage, and instead of waiting and planning and talking to people, I just rammed it through and it didn't happen. And because of that, for a year, New Mexicans didn't get an increase in the minimum wage. I think that's the biggest tactical mistake I've ever made and it's the biggest personal mistake because I feel so bad about it. For a whole year, New Mexicans were stuck at $5.15 per hour instead of $7.50 per hour.

Couric: How did you change course? Did you go back and make another attempt?

Richardson: I went back, made another attempt, talked to people, became inclusive, didn't get aggressive, gave others credit. And I got it done. I had just been trying to act too much like Superman and I didn't do it right and it cost people money on the table.


Couric: What's the biggest mistake you've ever made? How did you recognize it and what did you do to change course?

Romney: Well, I think from the political perspective, the biggest mistake I made was believing that my personal disagreement with abortion and my view that abortion was wrong, that somehow I could accommodate my personal view that abortion was wrong with a public view that other people should be able to make up their own mind, and the government wouldn't play a role. That, in my view, was a mistake. It became apparent to me when a bill reached my desk that would have created new life and destroyed it, and I simply could not sign it. It was unacceptable to me to … be associated with the destruction of human life. And I recognized that. I, therefore, wrote an op-ed piece in the Boston papers explaining that I was wrong in the past, that I'd made a mistake, and that I would, as a governor, come down on the side of life. And in the years I was governor of Massachusetts on every bill that related to … life, I came down on the side of life.

Couric: But that did haunt you for a while and you were called a flip-flopper on that issue.

Romney: Yeah. There's no question people are gonna be very focused on any time an individual changes their view on an issue. But certainly people make mistakes in their life. I have. I will. I hope I keep learning from my mistakes. I'm only worried about people who make mistakes and don't admit them and persist in a in a wrong-headed course. And you see a lot of that in politics. I was wrong with regards to my first position on abortion. I recognized that when I became governor and I have a record of showing where I came out.

Couric: Do you have an example of people who make mistakes and can't admit them?

Romney: Absolutely, but I'm not going to tell you what they are (LAUGHS). I don't want to be critical of other individuals and attack them. I think there are a lot of people who are…wrong and may not know they're wrong, but there are probably some who recognize they're wrong but are unwilling to make the shift and acknowledge that they made a mistake.

Couric: You said you have personal views toward abortion but felt that in the public arena, another position could exist. What is wrong with that? What's wrong with having a personal view and feeling that it's the right of individuals to make these difficult choices?

Romney: Well, what I recognized is that in a civilized society that there has to be a respect for the sanctity of life - that if you put that aside, if you say, "We're gonna start creating life and then destroying it," you're, in effect, playing God. And I think a civilized society has certain rules of conduct that it live by and one of those is to respect the sanctity of life. Another is respect in the sanctity of marriage. And…so when…I was faced with not a theoretical question of, "What do you think about abortion?" but, instead, the reality of being a governor who would sign a bill that would create life and destroy it-this was an embryonic cloning bill--I said, "I simply cannot become party to something where life would be created and then destroyed." And that made the decision for me that it was impossible to have a strong position personally opposing abortion and, at the same time, to say that we're going to have laws which permitted and permit the destruction of life throughout our society.

Couric: So are you opposed to stem cell research?

Romney: No, I'm very much in favor of stem cell research, but in a way which I believe is moral and ethical. And creating new embryos through embryo farming or through cloning, I find to be unethical and I would not pursue that course of stem cell research.

Couric: So what kind of embryos - embryos that are created for procreation and then would be discarded? Are those the ones that you feel are perfectly fine from which to cull cells for stem cell research?

Romney: Yes, those embryos that are referred to commonly as surplus embryos from in-vitro fertilization. Those embryos, I hope, could be available for adoption for people who would like to adopt embryos. But if a parent decides they would want to donate one of those embryos for purposes of research, in my view, that's acceptable. It should not be made against the law. I wouldn't finance that with government money because it represents a moral challenge for a lot of people and I think we're better investing in places where the prospects are much better. And I think that's something like something known as alter-nuclear transfer where you create new embryo, like, entities, but they're not human embryos. And you can take stem cells from those.