Friday, February 6, 2009

The Politics of Apology

I’ve always been impressed by people in public life who have mastered the art of the public apology. Some have couched their pleadings in terms of remorse as, for example Timothy Geithner, Tom Daschle and Charles Rangel, throwing themselves on our mercy, hoping that the media and the public would buy into their “forthright” confessions of ignorance and innocence in the matter of their blatant tax evasion.

Their ploy is to publicly castigate themselves for their naiveté and stupidity or worse, hoping that their thespian qualities and careful scripting by public relations consultants paid or volunteered would carry the day. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t as poor Tom Daschle found out. Perhaps there was too much public resentment about Daschle using his Senate inner knowledge to make a killing financially, appearing to severely weaken his populist image.

One of the most artful tactics of apology came from Richard Nixon when he was the Vice-Presidential candidate running with Dwight Eisenhower. He had been accused of being the recipient of a so-called slush fund that was designed to subsidize him in his political career, a situation that seemed to seriously dance around the bounds of legality.

His television speech, forever dubbed as the Checkers speech, since that was the name of the family cocker spaniel, was an outright plea for mercy on the grounds of economic hardship and the perils and wonders of a Horatio Alger boyhood, still in vogue at that time. He cited his devotion to public service and the fact that his poor wife only wore a “Republican” cloth coat since they were, as he implied, unable to afford a mink coat. Apparently the public bought into that exercise in self-pity and justification and, as we know, the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket won the election.

He took a different tack during the Watergate scandal, a hard-headed refusal to cooperate with investigators and, despite a huge election win and a massive effort at damage control, couldn’t save himself from resignation, nor keep his enablers out of jail. He was forced into exile and did not emerge until pardoned by President Ford in what was characterized as one of the greatest political payoffs of all time. Ford offered no apology for his action but used “we must put it behind us” reasoning which, in the end, doomed his chances for a second term.

The most masterful public apology in history was the one perpetrated by young Senator Ted Kennedy, who with the help of family and an army of retainers, orchestrated a brilliant apologia that is hands down a text book study of a public relations coup. In that case, a young woman Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned in a car driven by Senator Kennedy after a party in the Chappaquiddick section of Martha’s Vineyard in Cape Cod. He had driven the car into the water and managed to escape while the poor girl was left trapped in the car and drowned.

One still wonders how he managed to escape without helping the young lady to safety along the same escape route he had taken. Worse, he did not report the accident until the next day and was charged with leaving the scene of an accident, a minor violation. There were rumors of heavy drinking but the Kennedy loyalists at the party appeared to have closed ranks against the allegation and the drunken driving accusation became sidetracked.

His apology on television was a tribute to his thespian abilities and the brilliance of the acolytes and public relations experts who fashioned the speech which was probably rehearsed many times before it was delivered. It was chocked full of confessional platitudes like dubbing his actions in not reporting the accident as “inexplicable”, a good word, which puts reason on hold and he was groomed for the event like a mature innocent choirboy. Clearly though, panic, fear and confusion after the fact trumped any accusation of intent to deliberately end the life of this young woman.

His television apologia one-upped the Checkers speech and proved its mettle by saving Kennedy’s Senatorial career for its forty year run where he had won accolades for his hard work and consistently effective work for populist causes.

Those with a more acute long term memory will note that he was not rewarded with the Presidency he worked so hard to seek, not being able to gain enough traction in the primaries. If one very reluctantly puts aside the horror of Mary Jo Kopechne’s aborted young life, and sets it against the terrible tragedies of the Kennedy family, one is conflicted but cannot ignore a measure of compassion and clemency for the youngest brother of this ill fated clan. Perhaps there are moments when redemption is called for, although it comes with the curse of Mary Jo’s untimely death.

Even raising the issue years after the event while Senator Kennedy might be on the verge of answering his call to the beyond comes with some reluctance and sadness that cannot be ignored in the context of this essay.

But the weirdest attempt at an apologia came from none other than Bill Clinton who insisted, in the face of all evidence and against all the known logic of human behavior that he “did not have sex with that woman.” Of course no one believed him, even his wife, especially since his definition of sexual congress was mystifying. Indeed, there are those that truly believe that his putting oral sex beyond the boundaries of sexual activity set off a wave of true believers, especially among teenagers who, in apparent response, measured by statistics and anecdotal evidence, put oral sex into a category of popular amusements no more harmful than monopoly or roasting marshmallows at a campfire.

He was impeached despite his breakup with his chubby teenage intern but somehow held on to his post until George W. Bush took over. His image recovery is nothing short of miraculous. His effort at denial was an astounding success and he is now a role model for those who aspire to high office.

President Obama had two shots at apologia and handled them brilliantly. The first was in the matter of Reverend Wright whose church he had attended for decades. His method was to deny that he had ever heard the good Reverend’s obnoxious sermons. Despite the raised eyebrows everywhere, he had by then established such an unblemished image of probity that he was able to rise above the noise of his critics.

His second was in the matter of having gotten an especially good land deal from one of his financial sponsors Tony Rezko, now in jail and awaiting trial on other corruption charges. During the campaign Obama called his decision to make the deal in the first place “boneheaded.” Of course, he wasn’t running for President at the time of the real estate transaction which increased the size of the land footprint on his house and certainly increased its value. Given the state of Illinois politics, such obvious influence dealing was par for the course. We fervently hope there is no other shoe to drop in this case.

The problem with apologies in public life is that one cannot go to the well too often. In the President’s case the public will quickly tire of his multiple admissions of “screw-up’s”. I’m sure he knows this and given the infancy of his administration, he will undoubtedly put the brakes on the apology of self-effacement as time goes on.

Ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich took the denial road. He mounted a PR campaign on television to tell people he did nothing wrong. Since he was also indicted for corruption and was soon to go to trial in Federal Court his pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears and he was unanimously kicked out of office by acclamation of the Illinois legislature. If I had to guess what did him in in the long run, despite the damning evidence of his wiretapped rants, I’d say it was his hair. Something about that hair-do was off-putting.

Apology dramatics is an important part of a politician’s toolbox and the fidelity of the apology is directly proportional to the politician’s words and demeanor. Perhaps the secret of the Kennedy apology was his Catholic upbringing where confession is a ritualistic commandment and redemption a necessary response.

The truth is that a confession, especially if it comes with some histrionics, like moist eyes and the obvious facial ticks and body language of sorrow and innocence, can induce forgiveness.

But then, as George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have proven, strong jawed and steely eyed denial can be a lot more effective in the short run. Perhaps in the long run as well.


Anonymous said...

To build an apology, three elements are involved. 1)acknowledgement of wrong or an offense 2) regret for it 3) and responsibility for the offense.

Saying 'I apologize' is no more an apology than saying 'I want to fix my car, fixes your car. Do the work, deliver a clear and direct apology and don't hide behind vagueness or cliches.

Some of your above examples bring back some memories of apologies done the wrong way that compounded the original 'mistake' and perpetuated the problem as a bad example to our youth.

Judy said...

Thank you Thank you Thank you for the refocus. I cannot forget the "original" Teddy and subsequently and thankfully, Mary Jo. Neither apologies nor denials EVER change the facts.