Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

Why can’t men ever admit when they’re wrong?

I do not consider myself a particularly quick-tempered individual, but I do experience acute irritation at the sight of somebody rigorously denying a fact that is sitting directly in front of his nose, refusing to accept responsibility for even the most obvious indiscretions.  Indeed, this being the case, I’m amazed I’ve followed politics for as long as I have.

America is a land of far too much certainty and not nearly enough doubt.  In our leaders we look for unwavering strength, which we have somehow conflated with being deficiently introspective.  We don’t mind a president who occasionally commits an error, but he had better be prepared to deny it at every turn.  God forbid he acknowledge he is human and learn from his mistakes.

Politics means never having to say you’re sorry.

Or perhaps not.  Toward the end of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, as the walls of Watergate are closing in and Richard Nixon finds himself shackled down by the weight of his own stubbornness, his chief of staff H.R. Haldeman muses to John Ehrlichman, “Eight words in ’72:  ‘I covered up.  I was wrong.  I’m sorry.’  The American public would have forgiven him.”

A tickling thought, is it not?  At the moment Watergate broke, possibly they would have.  After all, Nixon had just won the election of 1972 by a score of 49 states to one; sentiment was on his side.  That old maxim, “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up,” suggests nothing so much as nipping a problem in the bud, before it takes on a life of its own.  Instead, knowing Nixon’s character as well as anyone, Ehrlichman can only respond, “Dick Nixon apologize?  That’ll be the day.”

If Nixon’s fatal flaw was pride, for many pols today it is fear—namely, fear of the people’s wrath.  Fear of being seen as weak and easily cowed.  Fear of shame and disgrace and consequences unknown.  And all predicated, of course, on the fear of losing one’s job.

What these representatives of ours do not consider is the possibility that this public they so dread can smell it on them at first whiff, and is not terribly impressed.  Maybe—just maybe—the American infatuation with strength-through-certainty has been vastly overstated over time, and today is but a figment of lawmakers’ imaginations.  They project unto us the fact that they just can’t handle the truth.

Long stretches of the George W. Bush administration seemed rooted in the assumption that it was preferable to be viewed as wrong rather than reflective, particularly regarding the Iraq War, leading to denial after denial of basic facts about WMDs long after the original assertions had proved false.  Bill Clinton, with his well-known rolodex of extramarital conquests, in 1998 opted to stonewall and proclaim Monica Lewinsky was not one of them, rather than cop to a fact that any American could have easily guessed.

With this behavior, did Clinton and various Bush officials not look like unholy fools?  Further, there is little evidence their anti-apology wagers did them any good in the first instance:  Upon finally apologizing for the whole messy affair, Clinton’s famously high approval ratings barely nudged, and Bush’s own begun their steady decline in conjunction with ever-worsening news from Iraq, neither ever recovering.

Mitt Romney, nebulous on most other topics, has clearly and tirelessly made the point of “not apologizing for America.”  Indeed, he wrote a whole book titled, No Apology.  While apologizing on behalf of the United States is not quite equivalent to apologizing on behalf of yourself, the underlying attitude is the same.

Saying that the U.S. government should not apologize under any circumstances, Romney can mean only one of two things:  Either that the United States never does anything wrong, or that it is simply not responsible for acknowledging when it does—justified, in Romney’s mind, by the presumption that America errs only with the best intentions.

In fact, President Reagan in 1988 apologized on behalf of the U.S. for Japanese internment during World War II.  Ten years later, President Clinton offered remorse for America’s lack of intervention in the genocide in Rwanda.  In June 2009, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution that apologized for slavery and Jim Crow.  Myriad further examples abound.

In other words, contrition in government has its precedents and its benefits.  It is downright silly to act as if it does not.  I say, then, that men ought to show a bit more respect for their fellow primates by not concealing or embellishing when they err, but rather to fess up and acknowledge reality when it creeps up and bites them in the patoot.

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