As political apologies go, Hillary Clinton’s acknowledgment that she should not have used a private computer server to handle sensitive State Department emails was a pretty good one, hitting all the right buttons. Clinton described her specific wrong actions instead of being vague; avoided well-known evasive phrases like “if anybody was offended;” and laid out exactly what she should and could have done better.
That might not get Clinton’s presidential campaign back on track, but it’s a good start. We’ll soon see if the apology will affect the poll numbers showing that a majority of voters find Clinton “untrustworthy” and believe she “knowingly lied” about the emails.
One reason Clinton delayed for weeks, resisting the simple act of saying she was sorry — the same reason politicians nearly always resist offering a full-throated apology — is that coming clean usually doesn’t work, at least in the short term.
First and foremost, it’s easy to flub an apology, notably by refusing to say exactly what misdeeds were committed. Politicians, like the rest of us, would just as soon not publicly incriminate themselves, especially if a law may have been broken somewhere along the way.
Here is one example. I could give you dozens.
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.
The reality is that some problems can’t be fixed with an apology. In 2006, a Pennsylvania congressman named Don Sherwood was caught in an extramarital affair — which is bad — and was accused by his mistress of choking her, which is much worse. Sherwood made a heartfelt ad apologizing for the affair, denying the physical abuse and asking for another term in Congress.
The voters kicked him out.
And think back to 2012, when then-Rep.Todd Akin, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Missouri, made national news by spouting offensive nonsense about whether sexual assault victims who survive a “legitimate rape” would become pregnant and need access to an abortion. Akin made a video in which he gazed into the camera and tried to undo the damage: “I used the wrong words in the wrong way, and for that I apologize,” he said.
The voters would have none of it: Akin’s lead in the polls vanished and he lost to Sen. Claire McCaskill, 55% to 39%. Akin later wrote that he regretted apologizing at all: “By asking the public at large for forgiveness, I was validating the willful misinterpretation of what I had said.”
Akin’s rueful conclusion — that some of people demanding an apology were actually seeking another reason to bash him — echoes a statement, years ago, by the Rev. Al Sharpton. The civil rights leader came under fierce pressure to apologize for his forceful and at times outrageous defense of Tawana Brawley, a black woman who roiled the nation in the 1980s with a fabricated tale of having been abducted and raped by white policemen.
But according to Sharpton, many of the people demanding an apology weren’t really looking for repentance. Sharpton described the process to a reporter this way: “Once you begin bending, it’s ‘did you bend today?’ or ‘I missed the apology, say it again.’ Once you start compromising, you lose respect for yourself.”
That’s why political figures who have spent a lot of time under fire — Sharpton, Donald Trump, and until now Hillary Clinton — are reluctant to hand any more ammunition to their enemies. Clinton, the object of endless conspiracies and innuendo, some of it quite demented, is understandably squeamish about giving her opponents new material to work with.
Clinton’s apology will likely satisfy voters who were already in her corner, and enrage those who hate her. And the vast majority in the middle will probably move on to other issues — the slow-growing economy, the fight against terrorism, the need to improve public schools — that will take more than “I’m sorry” to fix.