The art of the fake political apology

 Marjorie Williams

The writer Marjorie Williams wrote about politics in Washington. In this essay, besides her nonpartisan political observations, she reveals her astute observations on how to appear to apologize while saving your ass, which she calls the Useful Apology, defined as:
"...some revelation of personal weakness that is carefully calibrated to address a political vulnerability without making any concession that could attract further harm."
What are some of the characteristics of the Useful Apology?
  • It seems to be a confession
  • It is persuasive
  • It reveals a personal flaw
  • It deals with a political weakness
  • It is narrow in focus
  • It uses the passive voice
  • It can be used as a weapon against an opponent
  • It doesn't require the person apologizing to fix any mistakes
  • It drives normal people nuts
William's essay was originally called Mea-Not-Really-Culpa when it was published in the Washington Post in March, 2000. The essay is included in her book The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate by Marjorie Williams and Timothy Noah. Marjorie Williams died of cancer in 2005.

More about Williams and her book>>


The Art of the Fake Apology

When Al Gore acknowledged last weekend that he "made a mistake in pressing the limits" in his 1996 campaign fund-raising, he was offering up a fine new specimen of the Useful Apology. He now brings "the passion that comes from personal experience to the battle for campaign finance reform," he told the New York Times, a passion "fueled in part because of the pain of those mistakes." This supposed confession - dutiful, limited and as persuasive as all regrets spoken by miscreants who are sorry they got caught - contains a lot of what drives normal people nuts about politics.

The Useful Apology is some revelation of personal weakness that is carefully calibrated to address a political vulnerability without making any concession that could attract further harm. It must be phrased in such a way that it can be justified or nullifed or hurled at one's opponent in the very next sentence. Although Gore is a master of the strategic admission, he is hardly alone. George W. Bush offered us the recent example of his apology to the Catholic voters of America, couched as a letter to Cardinal O'Connor regretting ("deeply") that he missed the opportunity to decry Bob Jones University's official anti-Catholicism when he spoke there during the South Carolina primary. His letter went on for much greater length about how unfairly he had been criticized than it did about how sorry he was for what he did.

On a more personal level, Bush likes to wear the mantle of special achievement that justly belongs to anyone who has successfully battled an addiction - so long as you understand that his drinking problem was never an addiction. "Just like you, I'm on a walk," he told a group of recovering drug addicts at a January campaign appearance, "and it's a never-ending walk as far as I'm concerned." But in other settings he has maintained that "I don't think I was clinically an alcoholic. I didn't have the genuine addiction." Giving up drinking when he turned 40 was a "turning point," he writes in his memoir - but not such an important one that he couldn't accomplish it overnight, without help, Gary Cooper-style.

The master of the art of the mea-not-really-culpa is of course Bill Clinton. President Clinton spent most of the second half of 1998 not really apologizing for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, and especially not really apologizing for not quite lying in his deposition in the Paula Jones case. Democrats in Congress actually embroiled themselves in endless hairsplitting discussions about whether the president had apologized enough or whether apologizing more apologetically might stave off impeachment.

But there are ample precedents in both parties. Republican presidents have made artful use of the passive voice, which is every Useful Apologizer's best friend: "Mistakes were made," Ronald Reagan told the nation when he was absolutely forced to make a statement about how Iran-contra happened on his watch. This is the self-rescinding apology, which may be the most useful kind of all.

Yet this election year seems to be the high-water mark of the pseudo-admission. Both Gore and Bush are masters at donning the polyester hair-shirt to make amends that, in the same breath, deny any need for atonement. It is hard to say why they seem so evenly, depressingly matched in this. It could have something to do with a shared sense of entitlement (Could I really be wrong if I'm George W. Bush/Albert A. Gore Jr.?). I tend to think that Bush has a genuine, if blustering, inability to see himself as a bad guy (my own brother is a Catholic!), while Gore, who is more capable of self-scrutiny, has a heightened sense of shame that forbids much real admission of fault.

Bush's form of the false apology makes him look shallow; Gore's makes him look phony. Neither man is doing himself much good. The reason John McCain's reform message so galvanized primary voters, including Democrats, was not that they were panting to see this issue solved. It was the impression that his experiences - especially in being tarred as one of the Keating Five - had touched some treasured sense of himself that he had nearly sold. This quality sometimes verged on the histrionic - he never looked so happy as when he was kicking himself - but even then it seemed real. You could debate whether McCain would ever be able to convert this sense of mission into some effective reform; you could even debate whether the issue was as important as he said it was. But you never thought it was only Useful to him.

We all know, in our own lives, how hard it is to make a real apology. The real thing, in the moment before we cough it up, is a dire hairball of stubbornness and pride. A real apology is useless, in the sense that it isn't offered for the giver's gain. Otherwise it isn't a real apology. We don't expect every politician to be as self-scolding as John McCain. It may not even be a very good qualification for the presidency. All we ask of all the others is that they spare us the theater of sham regrets.

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