Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

By Gwyn Lurie   |   February 20, 2020

Why is it so hard for politicians to say: I’m sorry? Why has the apology become the very last resort?

I wondered this when Bill Clinton took so long to pseudo apologize for his behavior with Monica Lewinsky… and lied to Congress about it.

I wonder this about Donald Trump – who seems to operate under the assumption that his supporters are more willing to forgive a lie than an apology.

And I wondered this at our Montecito candidate’s debate when County Supervisor Das Williams was asked by KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian if, knowing what he knows now, would he do anything different regarding his actions on the cannabis issue? Even after being handed a golden opportunity to take some responsibility and apologize for his part in the admittedly messy situation, our Supervisor pivoted, shifting the culpability to the previous Board of Supervisors for allowing “non-conforming” cannabis growers to qualify for provisional licenses.

There is no shortage of politicians demurring from opportunities to apologize, which has always vexed me given my belief that people generally appreciate authenticity, sincerity, and remorse. Not to mention that these qualities are foundational to our justice system, where expressing remorse can have a strong influence on sentencing.

In my effort to understand why it seems verboten for public officials to apologize for wrongdoing or even for mistakes, I reached out to Frank Luntz, the author of Words That Work, a pollster and pundit best known for developing talking points and other messaging for Republican causes. As one of the best known political and communication consultants in America today I asked Luntz why he thinks it is so hard, or strategically disadvantageous, for leaders to apologize. I wondered if polling supported this pervasive refusal to take responsibility for missteps in public life and if therefore political consultants advise their clients not to apologize at any cost.

Bottom line: What is the thinking behind never apologizing?

“I disagree with the thinking,” Luntz said flat out. “The thinking behind it is that reporters will not record the apology. They will, instead, say ‘I told you so,’ giving people a reason to attack even further. But I don’t agree with that. Some reporters do that, but the public really appreciates those people who are willing to acknowledge they got it wrong. And that even though we have a generation, starting with George W Bush, to Obama and Trump, who would never apologize, we have seen throughout history, just how favorably the public feels towards those who acknowledge a mistake.”

I agree. I told Luntz how much I appreciated it when Mayor Pete Buttegieg stood on an early debate stage and, when asked about a controversial and politically wrought situation in which a South Bend police officer shot and killed a black man, he did not run from the truth. “It’s a mess,” Buttegieg said. “And we’re hurting.”

“I thought that was the best moment of the debates,” Luntz said. “And he was treated well by some news outlets. And other news outlets used it to say, ‘I told you so.’ But some of it is intent. If you’re truly sorry, it should be recognized as such. If it’s just a line that was given to you by your political consultant, then it’s meaningless.”

“We now have many candidates, both in business and politics, that consider an apology to be weak,” Luntz said. “Starting with our President. And remember, he once said that if he got something wrong, he would apologize for it. Well, he apparently has had 1,000 days of only correct statements. There is no perfection. But you are correct, politicians in the last twenty years have run away from apology and I think that’s a big mistake. Both strategically and ethically.”

“What culpability do you think the people have? Do we hold our leaders to too high a standard and therefore are motivating them to lie?” I asked Luntz.

“No. I think if you put yourself forward to represent the voice and the will of the people, you should be expected to achieve that 100% of the time. You won’t, obviously, and there are times that you come up short. But in those times, you need to acknowledge it. That’s part of the responsibility of governing. And part of the responsibility for the media is to acknowledge, in as bold a way as they report the assertions, they need to be equally bold in reporting the mistakes. You get a front page error that can wreck someone’s life, and the retraction is buried deep on page six. If the mistake is on the front page, the apology should be on the front page. There’s a wonderful line from the movie, Absence of Malice,” Luntz reflects. “And Paul Newman says to Sally Field: Where do I go to get my reputation back?”

Protecting one’s reputation is important to most of us, but perhaps even more so to elected officials and celebrities for whom public support is their lifeblood. So for me, it was a breath of fresh air when, on Instagram this past weekend, Snoop Dogg, the rapper and entertainment mogul, apologized after angrily criticizing CBS Morning talk show host, Gayle King, over an interview in which she touched on a 2003 sexual assault accusation against the very recently deceased Kobe Bryant.

“I should have handled it way different than that,” Snoop Dogg said in a long statement riddled with recrimination and contrition. “I was raised way better than that, so I would like to apologize to you publicly for the language that I used and calling you out of your name and just being disrespectful,” Snoop Dogg wrote.

His public apology, in turn, made it possible for Gayle King to take responsibility for her part in the situation. After reading Snoop Dogg’s thoughtful apology and Gayle King’s self-reflective acceptance, which included ownership in the conflict, I was deeply moved by the humanity and the possibilities of that moment. If this former gang member and self-avowed cocaine dealer, who has gone on to make incredible strides in his life, can stand up in front of the world and say “I’m sorry,” why can’t more of our leaders show that same strength and character?

The spirit of what happened between Snoop Dogg and Gayle King is at the core of something called Restorative Justice, a practice now commonly used in schools and other institutions around the country – including our local elementary school, MUS. It is a powerful approach to discipline that focuses on repairing harm through inclusive engagement of all stakeholders. Snoop Dogg, by taking responsibility for his handling of a situation, allowed both parties involved to see their own role in the event, and therefore paved the way for them each to heal and evolve as human beings. And in so doing, we, as witnesses to this courageous behavior, were able to evolve along with them.

My guess is we’ve all said or done things we regret. Made jokes that we know would be hurtful to the wrong audience. Engaged in or gone along with behavior that felt acceptable in a certain context, but later, upon reflection, makes us cringe. I certainly have.

In the movie Love Story, Jennifer Cavilleri (Ali MacGraw) says to Oliver Barrett III (Ryan O’Neal), “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Though I’ve always liked this movie and it never fails to make me cry, I’ve never understood that line. I was taught that saying “I’m sorry” is, in and of itself, a loving act. I think we understand that every time we wish for our children or our spouse or a friend, to apologize; because when someone says “I’m sorry” it says that how we feel matters; and it gives a relationship the chance to recover… and to grow. The same way when broken bones heal, they become strongest where they were once harmed.

Wouldn’t it be great if our leaders finally caught up with the evolution of sensitivity taking place in our greater society?

Here at the Montecito Journal, from now on, when we print a retraction, it will be done under the heading: We Apologize. And as per Frank Luntz’s push for fairness, if the error occurred on the front page, that’s exactly where the retraction will be found.


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