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Opinion: I’m Sorry You’re Not Sorry

An apology is not a sign of weakness — even inside the Beltway

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and staff make their way from the Capitol Visitor Center to the Capitol in December. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and staff make their way from the Capitol Visitor Center to the Capitol in December. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

We all know that the fastest way to diffuse tension or end a fight is to say “I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry if …” or “I’m sorry that you …” Just a simple, clean, “I’m sorry.”

It’s obvious to nearly everyone that an apology would have been the fastest way to end the controversy last week over a head-snapping leaked comment from White House staffer Kelly Sadler, who said ailing Sen. John McCain’s refusal to support President Donald Trump’s pick for CIA director won’t matter because “he’s dying anyway.”

Sadler has apologized to Meghan McCain for that comment, and I bet if Sadler could do what she wanted, she’d offer that same apology publicly. But this is 2018 in Washington. Anyone who acts shocked that it’s not forthcoming has not been paying attention. In fact, they’re probably partially to blame.

Look in the mirror, Washington consultants, campaign operatives, elected officials (with some exceptions), and staffers of both parties: You’re sorry too. Long before Donald Trump ever came on the scene, it was becoming less and less acceptable to admit a mistake or accept responsibility for something that goes awry.

Getting to the point

President Bill Clinton eventually apologized for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky, but it took a year-long investigation, a subpoena, and multiple failed public versions of “I have asked for forgiveness” to get to “I’m sorry.” His presidency ended with sky-high approval ratings anyway.

President George W. Bush famously said he couldn’t think of a single mistake he’d made five years into his presidency, including a war in Iraq based on faulty intelligence.

Around that same time, admitting error also began to be seen as dumb. It would be too easy to cut a 30-second ad about it someday. Better to admit nothing and move on.

On the other side of the spectrum, President Barack Obama quickly gained a reputation as a serial apologizer after showing his willingness, sometimes even an eagerness, to admit error, accept accountability, cop to made mistakes, and sometimes, yes, even apologize when something demonstrably terrible had happened.

In France in 2009, he said that the U.S. had in the past “been dismissive.” In Turkey that year, he said America had its own “darker periods in our history.” And while he wasn’t technically apologizing, he did admit to many countries during his terms that the United States isn’t perfect.

There were also some formal apologies too. In 2015, the White House confirmed that Obama had apologized to Doctors without Borders for an American bombing in Afghanistan, while in 2016, he offered America’s “deepest regrets” for the murder of a Japanese woman, apparently at the hands of a U.S. Marine.

For some Americans, it was all a refreshing willingness to show humility. For others, including many Republicans, Obama’s willingness to show regret for the nation’s actions was a special kind of presidential weakness to exploit. Refusing to apologize was strong, and suddenly patriotic.

In the run-up to his 2012 run against Obama, Mitt Romney wrote an entire book called “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” He also told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that year in a speech, “I won’t apologize for America.” It was a swipe at Obama that was meant to be — and was — a big applause line.

The Heritage Foundation wrote a list of Obama’s “Top 10 Apologies” on his way to “humiliating” the United States as a superpower. T-shirts, meant to be patriotic, popped up at campaign rallies, promising, “I’ll never apologize for being American.”

A few years into Obama’s second term, Donald Trump stepped into that environment and filled it with volume and oxygen. Forget Romney’s talk about not apologizing; Trump never would. When given the chance to apologize for calling Mexicans rapists and murderers in a stump speech, he refused. He also wouldn’t say sorry to a New York Times reporter for mocking his disability. In fact, they were the ones who should be sorry. “I think the New York Times, frankly, should give me an apology,” he said.

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At a September debate in 2016, Jeb Bush told Trump to apologize to his wife, Columba, for tweeting that Bush only liked “illegals” because his wife is from Mexico. “I won’t apologize, I didn’t do anything wrong,” Trump said. On and on, throughout the campaign and since, apologies, according to Trump, were weak, dumb and unnecessary.

A few exceptions?

Today, leaders in D.C. are all too quick to call for someone else to apologize instead of doing it themselves. But it does happen. In 2016, Speaker Paul Ryan told congressional interns that he’d been wrong to classify Americans as either “makers” or “takers.” “As I spent more time listening, and really learning the root causes of poverty, I realized something. I realized that I was wrong,” Ryan said.

Last year, as the scandal around former Rep. John Conyers exploded, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said she supported him, partially because the accusers hadn’t made themselves public, which they had. Later that week, one of those former staffers, Melanie Sloan, said she had spoken for 45 minutes by phone with Pelosi, who had offered her regrets. “She apologized for those statements and that was big of her.”

If anyone in the country knows the benefit of a swift apology and course correction, it’s the American business community, where you’d hope the president would have picked up a few more lessons. The CEO of Starbucks recently did it after two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while they were waiting for a business partner.

In the days after the arrest happened, CEO Kevin Johnson publicly apologized to the men and met with them privately to do the same. Later this month, Starbucks will close more than 8,000 stores for a full day of training in an effort to make sure a similar situation doesn’t happen again. In the process, Johnson not only addressed the problem, but also improved Starbucks’ future business operations and relationships with customers in the process.

It’s an unexpected lesson in decency and respect from the business world — an apology is not a sign a weakness, but a path to greater strength in the long run.  

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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