The quality of mercy is not strain’d, Portia tells Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, but the quality of repentance is almost always strained in American politics. That’s why political apologies tend to take the form of the non-apology apology, because few politicians want to truly own up to serious errors and missteps. One either hears “mistakes were made,” or in the case of Hillary Clinton last week, “I’m sorry for causing confusion” — a construct which blames everyone else but her for the controversy over her use of a secret e-mail server to thwart oversight of the State Department. Few political apologies demonstrate sincere remorse and repentance, which is why so few of them work.
In some cases, though, even a sincere apology doesn’t work because the action requiring it is so egregious that it goes beyond apologies, at least in terms of political careers. Errol Louis at CNN says Americans “can be a remarkably unforgiving lot,” but there is a difference between forgiveness and a restoration of trust once abused:
A generation ago, a senator named Bob Packwood flubbed his chance to apologize after 10 women, many of them staffers, came forward with allegations that he sexually harassed them over a span of 25 years. While acknowledging his “unwelcome and offensive” conduct, Packwood — in an effort to salvage his career while avoiding lawsuits — resorted to the tortured phrase, “I’m apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did.”
A resulting story in The New York Times was accurately titled, “Packwood Offers Apology Without Saying for What.” Packwood ultimately resigned after a unanimous recommendation by the Senate Ethics Committee that he be expelled from Congress.
Even when the apology is specific and heartfelt, it may not be accepted: American voters, it turns out, can be a remarkably unforgiving lot.
In 2013, a pair of talented and energetic New York politicians — former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who admitted to having raunchy online chats with strangers, and ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned after admitting he’d hired hookers — both attempted political comebacks, with Weiner running for mayor and Spitzer for city comptroller.
Both had apologized for their misdeeds. But both lost at the polls.
Both apologized, and there isn’t any data to suggest that those apologies weren’t accepted. Spitzer’s was probably taken more at face value; Weiner tried claiming his account had been hacked and blamed his political enemies before finally admitting that he’d texted graphic pictures of his genitalia to at least one woman who was not his wife. When someone spends time attempting to dodge responsibility for their actions by blaming others for their misdeeds, the eventual apology that comes after all other avenues have been closed off rings more than a little hollow.
Even so, a sincere apology and abject repentance does not entitle one to a free ride back into public office. There is nothing inconsistent with forgiving Spitzer for his hypocritical actions (recalling that he won his gubernatorial race in part by bragging about his crackdown on high-priced prostitution rings) while still not trusting a public office to someone with those kinds of demonstrated judgment issues. New York City has nine million people, and surely there are at least a couple who have a better track record on trust than Spitzer and Weiner. The public, even a forgiving public, does not owe them an office merely because they’re genuinely sorry for their misdeeds.
That brings us to Hillary Clinton, who has spent the last six-plus months blaming everyone but herself for her outrageous conduct while Secretary of State. She thwarted the Federal Records Act, Congressional oversight and FOIA requests by pretending she had no e-mail account for official business, only admitting it when she got caught by the Benghazi committee. Her unauthorized and poorly secured server turned out to contain classified data, despite her denials, and instead of admitting it spent the next couple of months claiming that “markings” were determinative.
Only after her campaign went into a free-fall did Hillary decide to try out an apology, as I note in my column for The Fiscal Times, and then only after focus-group testing it:
In the novel Love Story by Erich Segal, the doomed Jenny says, “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.” The film version of the novel turned that line into the theme song. In American politics this week, we discovered something different, and a bit more cynical. Power means you never have to really be sorry, even if you might have to offer an apology after several months of evasions and deceptions. …
Last week, Clinton began sneaking up on an apology. At first, all she would say is that she was “sorry for the confusion” caused by the private server, in an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. That was followed by a flat-out insistence that Clinton would never apologize over the weekend because a private e-mail server was “allowed.” By Tuesday, Clinton had reversed course again and offered an apology for the server to ABC’s David Muir . However, in an appearance the same day on Ellen DeGeneres’ eponymous show, Clinton again only apologized for creating “confusion.”
These shifting apologies seem less than sincere and authentic, perhaps in large part because Clinton frames them – in their most expansive forms – for the “mistake” of having a private server. She talks about it as if it was an oversight or an inconsequential momentary lapse in judgment – for which one would have expected an apology seven months ago. But this was no momentary failure; the Clintons paid an IT tech out of their own pocket for years to build and maintain this system, allowing the State Department to deceive courts on FOIA requests and block Congress from their legitimate oversight into her official actions.
The insincerity of the apologies reflects the sudden decision to start offering them. Clinton only changed course, The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman reports, only after focus group testing informed the campaign that Clinton’s arrogant denials of reality were burying her politically. Ironically, Clinton decided to make the shift to some kind of apology just as her campaign decided that she needed to change her approach to demonstrate more spontaneity and authenticity . And nothing says spontaneity and authenticity like a series of focus-group-driven inconsistent apologies.
There is a large difference between apologizing and actual admission and repentance. Even the latter doesn’t get Hillary off the hook, though, because her actions in a position of public trust show that she cared more about her own political future than honesty, integrity, safeguarding national security, transparency, the law, and the Constitution. That should disqualify her for any political office, regardless of whether she can bring herself to admit to her wrongdoing.