Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Is Apology a Lost Art?

People in the public eye often say or do stupid things that lead to calls for them to apologize. Sometimes these even result in apologies, but often the "apology" is quite a bit less than a real apology. It may come with a giant "but," or there may be an "if" that all but invalidates it.

These psuedo apologies are frequently taken at face value today. As the famous 1971 episode with Dick Cavett and Lester Maddox shows, this was not always the case:
On the Media: "DICK CAVETT: Well the thing that really started the trouble, I guess -- it might have gone off as a sort of strained but pleasant, ironic show -- was for some reason I chose to say -- in going to commercial -- a question that began with 'Of the bigots who voted for you--'

BROOKE GLADSTONE:[LAUGHS] For some reason, that caused trouble.

DICK CAVETT: Yeah. I don't know why. I mean I asked everybody that but-- [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER]

Anyway. The next thing I hear from Lester is-- [MIMICKING] You've got one minute to apologize! You've called all the people of Georgia bigots - and the people of Georgia are not bigots!

And this went on for a bit, and then I finally said -- all right. If I've called anyone a bigot who isn't a bigot, I apologize. Well, Lester saw through this and pulled out or -and exited.

And then Truman had the wit to say: [MIMICKING] You know, I went to his--restaurant and I-- ate there, and I had the chicken. And it wasn't finger-lickin' good. [LAUGHTER] I bet you thought I had Truman right here, talking into the phone. [LAUGHS]"
Both Maddox and Cavett knew that "If I've called anyone a bigot who isn't a bigot, I apologize," is no apology at all.

When he had no other choice, Trent Lott issued this pseudo apology for his foolish remarks reminiscing about "the good ol' days" when Strom Thurmond was a segregationist: - Lott apologizes for Thurmond comment - Dec. 10, 2002: "'A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past,' Lott said. 'Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.'"
Note the suggestion that the whole thing was a misunderstanding by some people, rather than what he really said and the implications of that.

This week we have Dick Durbin's pseudo apology for trivializing institutionalized mass murder and comparing American servicemen to Nazis, Stalinists, and Khmer Rouge killers: - Politics - Durbin Apologizes for Nazi, Gulag, Pol Pot Remarks: "'I am sorry if anything I said caused any offense or pain to those who have such bitter memories of the Holocaust, the greatest moral tragedy of our time. Nothing, nothing should ever be said to demean or diminish that moral tragedy.

'I am also sorry if anything I said cast a negative light on our fine men and women in the military. ... I never ever intended any disrespect for them. Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line. To them I extend my heartfelt apology,' Durbin said, choking on his words."
Although Senator Frist (and others) immediately accepted the "apology" (probably with a huge sigh of relief), it's really not much of an apology. Note what he doesn't say: that he sees that his previous speech was offensive and that he regets saying those things. It's all, "I'm sorry if..." He threw in a few tears with the delivery, but it's hard to escape the idea that what was really upsetting Durbin was having painted himself into a corner.

When Teresa Heinz Kerry suggested that Laura Bush didn't know much because she had never had a real job, Heinz Kerry knew she had gone too far. As apologies by public figures go, hers was pretty darned good: - Teresa Heinz Kerry apologizes for Laura Bush comment: "In a statement issued Wednesday, Heinz Kerry said: 'I had forgotten that Mrs. Bush had worked as a school teacher and librarian, and there couldn't be a more important job than teaching our children. As someone who has been both a full-time mom and full-time in work force, I know we all have valuable experiences that shape who we are. I appreciate and honor Mrs. Bush's service to the country as first lady and am sincerely sorry I had not remembered her important work in the past.'"
Nebraska Democratic Party Executive Director Barry Rubin did a respectable job with his apology for calling Carlos Castillo a "Tio Tomas", although it took Rubin a few days of stonewalling to get around to it:
Lincoln Journal Star: "'I want to extend my apology to each and every person who was offended by my comments,' Rubin said in a news release.

'Our party is one of inclusion and outreach,' he said.'I'm afraid that in my effort to defend the rights of those Nebraskans who were denied the right to vote in the November election I may have offended those I was seeking to protect.'"
Rubin had also called Castillo on the phone to "offer my apology for offending him" in person, but Castillo would not take the call. We note that apologizing for "offending him" is not quite the same as apologizing for "making offensive remarks," as it still suggests the problem was with the target not the remark.

Howard Dean's "Confederate Flag remark" passed without a true apology, although he retroactively claimed he had already apologized: - Dean: 'I apologize' for flag remark - Nov. 7, 2003: "Dean didn't apologize for his remarks that night, stressing that his intentions were to bring together races that have been divided by the Republicans since the late 1960s.

On Wednesday, he said he regretted any pain that his comments may have caused to Southern white and African-American voters 'in the beginning of this discussion' on race.

In his remarks at Cooper Union in New York, he said he didn't condone the use of the Confederate flag and asserted that there is only one flag -- the American flag.

On Thursday, Dean said the regret he expressed was an apology.

'I got off to a pretty clumsy start by making references to the Confederate flag and that was a painful reference for a number of people and I regret that and apologize for it.'"
Some might contend that the last sentence here represents an actual apology. We'd say it all depends on what the meaning of "that" is.

Eason Jordan of CNN, who resigned after the quietest firestorm in history, was said by some to have apologized here for stating repeatedly that American forces were "targeting" journalists in Iraq: - CNN executive resigns after controversial remarks - Feb 11, 2005: "'After 23 years at CNN, I have decided to resign in an effort to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy over conflicting accounts of my recent remarks regarding the alarming number of journalists killed in Iraq,' Jordan said in a letter to colleagues.' [...]

Several participants said he told the audience that U.S. forces had deliberately targeted some journalists. But Jordan strongly denied that he had made such a suggestion and said he did not believe journalists had been deliberately targeted. In his letter to staff on Friday, he said he had 'great admiration and respect for the men and women of the U.S. armed forces,' noting that he was embedded with them in Baghdad, Tikrit and Mosul. He said he has also spent time with U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen in Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the Persian Gulf.

'I never meant to imply U.S. forces acted with ill intent when U.S. forces accidentally killed journalists, and I apologize to anyone who thought I said or believed otherwise,' Jordan said."
We re-read the entire article searching for an apology, and this was as close as we could get. It still misses by a mile. Considering that Jordan and CNN blocked the release of the videotape of his remarks, it's hard to credit his version of events.

When we screw up, we say, "Sorry Boss. I made a mistake and the project is delayed," or "Sorry, Honey, I forgot to do that job I promised to do this weekend." We also have learned to do it sooner rather than later. It would be nice if our public figures could do the same.

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