It’s an election year and that means we get to think about the language of politicians—their vocabularies, vocal timbre, gestures, accents, metaphors, style, mistakes, and recoveries. I’m always on the lookout for interesting apologies, and the 2016 election has not been a disappointment.
Here’s a round-up of some apologies in the news from political figures running for president:
First, the Republican candidates:
In late February, after dropping out of the race, Jeb Bush told his financial backers in a conference call: “I’m sorry that it didn’t turn out the way that I intended.” His comments were reported as an apology, but it was really more of a lament. He’s sorry it didn’t work out, but he’s not apologizing.
Also in February, Marco Rubio was characterized as apologizing to his supporters for his weak debate and poor performance in the New Hampshire primary. Rubio said, “Our disappointment tonight is not on you — it’s on me.” Rubio takes responsibility here with the colloquial “It’s on me.” He added, “I did not do well on Saturday night. So listen to this: that will never happen again.” He’s taking responsibility and promising to do better, but not apologizing. And later, just before his home-state Florida primary, Rubio said he regretted his debate comments about the size of Donald Trump’s hands: “My kids were embarrassed by it, and if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t.” This too was characterized as an apology, but it is just a confession of bad behavior.
In the same month, Ohio Governor John Kasich walked back comments he made about one of his early campaigns in the 1970s. He had told a crowd in Fairfax, Virginia that many women “left their kitchens to go out and go door-to-door and to put yard signs up for me.” When women supporters asked “WHAT!?,” Kasich first conceded that his comments were not made “artfully” and later offered this statement:
“I’m more than happy to say, ‘I’m sorry’ if I offended somebody out there, but it wasn’t intended to be offensive.”
Kasich is not apologizing; he’s just offering an insincere conditional.
Ted Cruz apologized for the action of misspeaking (but not for the claim itself) to then fellow candidate Ben Carson in February after a Cruz campaign surrogate had reported (on the evening of the Iowa caucuses) that Carson had dropped out. After being declared the Iowa winner, Cruz issued a statement saying “This was a mistake from our end, and for that I apologize to Dr. Carson.” As with Hillary Clinton’s apology, the first step is to characterize the offense (“a mistake”) and then add on “for that, I apologize.”
Cruz was less successful with his earlier apology to New Yorkers in January. After saying that Donald Trump represented New York values and that “everyone in the country knows exactly what New York values are,” Cruz was called on to apologize. Instead, he used the grammar of an apology to deliver an insult:
“Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio have all demanded an apology, and I’m happy to apologize. I apologize to the millions of New Yorkers who have been let down by the liberal politicians in that state.”
As for Donald Trump, he seems to avoid apologizing more than any politician since Dick Cheney. Instead, he frequently demands apologies from others (from Ted Cruz, from FOX News, from Vincente Fox, from Hillary Clinton, from Megyn Kelly, from the New York Times). The closest he has come to an apology for anything is this statement, which he made some time after tweeting an unflattering picture of Cruz’s wife:
“If I had it to do again, I probably wouldn’t have sent it. I didn’t think it was particularly bad, but I probably wouldn’t have sent it.”
It’s more a casual afterthought than a real apology. The message seems to be denial: I didn’t do anything wrong, and I won’t do it again, maybe.
Now to some apologies by Democratic candidates:
In late 2015, Senator Bernie Sanders found himself needing to apologize for his campaign’s behavior when staffers were found to have accessed Hillary Clinton’s donor data. During the third Democratic debate last December, Sanders was asked by a journalist if he owed Clinton an apology. He said: “Yes, I apologize. Not only do I apologize, I want to apologize to my supporters. This is not the kind of campaign that we run.” The debate moderator had already framed what was being apologized for, so Sanders was able to be non-specific about the offense and use the apology to transcend the problem by asserting “This is not the kind of campaign we want to run.”
Transcending is one strategy; efficiency is another. In March, Hillary Clinton apologized after referring to Nancy Reagan as an advocate for AIDS research, angering AIDS activists and others. Clinton said:
“While the Reagans were strong advocates for stem cell research and finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, I misspoke about their record on HIV and AIDS. For that, I’m sorry.”
She first characterizes the offense (as misspeaking) and then uses the pronoun that to deemphasize the action and apologize: “For that, I’m sorry.” She used the same approach in her Facebook statement in September of 2015, apologizing for using her personal email for State department work:
“Yes, I should have used two email addresses, one for personal matters and one for my work at the State Department. Not doing so was a mistake. I’m sorry about it, and I take full responsibility.”
And that is how politicians apologize. Some laments, some responsibility taking, some regrets, some transcendence, some efficiency, an apology-as-insult, and a denial.
As your mother probably told you, in a good apology, you should name what you did wrong, apologize clearly and directly, take responsibility, and try to repair the harm.
Then there is real life, which often falls short.
Feature image credit: “Bernie Sanders for President” by Phil Roeder, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.