“I Said I Was Sorry!”

Posted on November 4, 2013


“O.K., so I SAID I accept responsibility – what else do you want from me?” Mmmm, I don’t know, maybe your resignation?

Everyone’s witnessed the insincere, cynical style of apology from one side of it or the other, or both. In childhood, maybe your parents caught you being rude to a brother or sister or  playmate. To correct your behavior and smooth out the wrinkle in the relationship, they told you – “O.K., I want you to apologize to Johnny”. Depending on how compliant with parental authority you were, you might do it forthwith or you might respond, “Why should I?” “Why should I?” causes the parent to get a little tight in the jaw and hot under the collar, at which point mom or dad outline the lay of the land as it were, in no uncertain terms. So, you do it, but in a hollow and perfunctory manner – “O.K., if I have to.”  The parent is not deceived and most likely, the chum or acquaintance isn’t either – after all, they’ve probably approached these mandated mea culpas in the same fashion.

One could say that the various styles of insincere apologies, began at the dawn of history. The Gold standard of, them all – Adam in the Garden, is typical of the interactions in which the parent knows not merely that a transgression has been committed, plus the specific nature of the circumstance, but desires to first ascertain if the wrongdoing is going to be compounded by a lie. God asks a question He already fully knew  the answer to – you could say this was sort of an arraignment hearing. “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” Now, Adam is confronted with the choice to admit or deny, but opts for an alternative approach – plead guilty with an explanation.

The problem with Adam’s explanation concerns shifting the blame.The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. This is very sophisticated, yet not surprising, given the fact that the original act of disobedience was the prime cause of Adam’s shift from complete transparency and total honesty to deception and guile.

It’s actually a more complex  non-apology than is apparent at first blush. For one thing, Adam lies  about the circumstances of the disobedient act. The Forbidden Fruit story is often  misrepresented by the clergy, conveying the impression that Eve was the Serpent’s sole audience. Moreover, while the Snake was giving his enchanting elevator speech about why she should second guess the Creator, Adam was off fiddling around elsewhere, came upon the scene afterwords and was ambushed. Not true. Adam was right there and heard every word and didn’t chime in even once.

Had this not been the case, Adam could have claimed that it was his impression that some new arrangement had been made in his absence. But notice the treachery that promptly inhabits Adam’s thinking. He first shifts the blame away from himself on to God. “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me…” He basically implies,  ” I would never have done it had you not corrupted my morals with this woman. It’s really your fault, not mine”. Then, he absolves himself of responsibility by inferring that he was pressured into it. “Hey, I didn’t pick the fruit, she did it and then handed it to me before I even realized what was going on.”  This is a flat non-apology – no pretense of contrition, strictly an admission offloading accountability; a confession without culpability.

Since then, non-apologies and false apologies have expanded their repertoire to include apology by coercion, feigned regret, remorse and passive-aggressive apologies.  Here are some examples:

  • The theatrical apology – Jimmy Swaggert and Paula Deen. There’s a decidedly Southern flavor to this confession. Remember Crocodile tears originated in the swamps in Florida and Mississippi.
  • The legalistic and circumscribed apology in which the wrongdoing is not specifically named and is tendered in the context of a lapse in judgment. Baseball players and Tour De France medalists caught using illegal performance enhancing drugs are prominent in this category.
  • The disingenuous non-apology. “I’m sorry to all of those that I offended.” The implication here is that I was just being myself and doing my thing and you either took it the wrong way or your sensibilities are too fragile. From now on, I’ll take into consideration how sensitive you are.

Plus this miscellaneous assortment:

  • Twitter apologies – John Meyer
  • Media whore apologies – apologizing in People magazine or on Oprah’s program.
  • If I had any idea of the pain this would cause, I … (hundreds of public figures)
  • You misunderstood me, my sense of humor just went sideways – i.e., Don Imus
  • It wasn’t me, it was the alcohol – I apologize on behalf of the alcoholism (or other addiction) – apology (Mel Gibson)
  • Running a shtick for humor content, apology – David Letterman                            
    The incoherent apology – Jesse James
  • The performance art apology – Lindsey Lohan
  •  Serial Apologists – George Michael, Anthony Weiner
  •  I regret letting people down – apology   “You just have too high  expectations, lower ’em.”                               

We could be here for days, and I’m sure you have your own favorites, but I’d like to focus in on a subdivision of insincere public apologies –  their use by the political class. This abuse of  public trust, while active in previous decades at all levels of government, has ramped up significantly during the Obama Administration. At this point we can clearly see a standard operating procedure. Particularly disingenuous are Obama’s repeated invocations of Harry Truman – a president with many faults, but a Democrat who Obama couldn’t live up to if he lived for another millennium. He started this even while he was still in the Senate:

“The fact that we’re here today to debate raising America’s debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. Leadership means ‘The buck stops here.’ Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better. I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America’s debt limit.”

Here’s a sample from during his re-election campaign:

“Well, here’s what I know, we were just talking about responsibility and as president of the United States, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m responsible for folks who are working in the federal government and you know, Harry Truman said the buck stops with you. Now my understanding is the Mr. Romney attested to the FCC, multiple times, that he was the chairman, CEO and president of Bain Capital and I think most Americans figure if you are the chairman, CEO and president of a company that you are responsible for what that company does.

Ultimately Mr. Romney, I think, is going to have to answer those questions, uh because if he aspires to being president one of the things you learn is, you are ultimately responsible for the conduct of your operations, but again that’s probably a question that he’s going to have to answer and I think that’s a legitimate part of the campaign”.

Obviously it’s not a legitimate part of your presidency, Mr. Obama. Obama has gone to the Truman card habitually. Here’s one from 2009 (AIG Bonus Scandal) as a bookend:

Ultimately I’m responsible, I’m the president of the United States,” he said. “We’ve got a big mess that we’re having to clean up. Nobody here drafted those contracts. Nobody here was responsible for supervising AIG and allowing themselves to put the economy at risk by some of the outrageous behavior that they were engaged in. We are responsible, though. The buck stops with me. And my goal is to make sure that we never put ourselves in this kind of position again.”

Again during the presidential debate, Obama made this statement:

I am ultimately responsible for what’s taking place there because these are my folks, and I’m the one who has to greet those coffins when they come home,”

Hillary Clinton tried to steal his thunder:

I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts.  The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They’re the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision.”

That quote will resonate to her disfavor in 2016. But Obama wouldn’t have it –  “She works for me,” he said. “I’m the president and I’m always responsible, and that’s why nobody’s more interested in finding out exactly what happened than I do.”

This next one (August, 2011 with Wolf Blitzer), is indicative of a trend with these comments – accepting responsibility in one breath and disowning it in the next:

“And what I continue to believe is that ultimately the buck stops with meI’m going to be accountable.  I think people understand that a lot of these problems were decades in the making.  People understand that this financial crisis was the worst since the Great Depression.”

The buck never really comes to a screeching halt on Obama’s desk. Reason being, Obama’s disabled the brakes. It’s always, “I lost my homework, because the Republicans in Congress ate it.”  Which is it Mr. President, you’re either the man America appointed to fix things or you’re the perpetual blame shifter?

There’s been an unending litany of these faux accountability statements from this presidency and this administration – so many that we don’t have room for all of them here, but the latest one falls into the predictable pattern already established. Kathleen Sebelius recent testimony on the HealthCare.gov rollout:

“I am as frustrated and angry as anyone with the flawed launch of HealthCare.Gov. You deserve better. I apologize. I’m accountable to you for fixing this problem, and I’m committed to earning your confidence back by fixing the site.” 

But she can’t stop there and simply own it. She has to copy her boss and point back to situations and actors prior to Obama, in this case the roll out of Romneycare. What’s actually happening here is that Obama and his administration are gaming apologies as a method of damage control and to kick the can down the road and hope the news cycle on everything will blow over (by design, as it has in the past). That’s not going to happen with Obamacare. The Obama White House and his Cabinet have destroyed any legitimacy to the phrase “I accept responsibility”. What that phrase is now purposed for, is a debate ender.

Even though these counterfeit mea culpas are delivered in the most artful passive-aggressive style, they still translate to, in simple terms – “Hey, I’m Sorry Already, So Will You Shut UP About It Now?”  That’s what Hillary’s “At this point, what difference does it make?” comment betrayed. She spit out her pro-forma acceptance of accountability and now the controversy is settled, or so she hopes.

What we need to see, but won’t, is someone in a presumed position of leadership, taking ownership of the consequences – in other words confessing incompetence / negligence / malfeasance and tendering resignation.

Roxana Gay, writing in Salon sums up this behavior and our role in it.

“This is the kind of apology we get when there is a public expectation for immediate and shallow contrition in the wake of a flagrant misstep. Perhaps we get the apologies we deserve because while we demand apologies, I’m not sure we demand real change. We don’t demand anything more rigorous from public figures, (than) from ourselves.”