A politician has political power, is active in party politics, or holds an elected office in government. An apology expresses regret or remorse for actions. The goal of apologizing is generally forgiveness, reconciliation, or restoration. Political apologies are rare because politicians see little to gain by apologizing. They see no moral imperative.
Voters take political apologies as admissions but only occasionally change their voting allegiances. When voters share the politician’s bias and prejudices, they overlook misconduct, misdemeanors, and meanderings because they too sometimes cross social, legal, and fidelity lines. A vote for infidelity seems fair enough. That’s why politicians passed no-fault divorce laws, right?
According to attribution theory, giving an apology early leads to less conflict when politicians are found out. Rather than seek forgiveness, reconciliation, or restoration, they whistle ever so softly as they tiptoe through cemeteries.
The way an apology is given by ordinary citizens affects the outcome and the process of forgiveness. For most people, putting genuine emotion into an apology generally helps resolve disputes more quickly and helps rid negative emotions faster. But for politicians, there are no votes to be gathered in admitting mistakes; it’s better to ignore and hope the voters do the same.
That said, there are rare political apologies on the public record, even when overdue by decades or lifetimes. Former president Bill Clinton “regretted” his affair with Monica Lewinsky on August 17, 1998. He said, “I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.” Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara said he was “very sorry” for errors in prosecuting the Vietnam War. He never formally apologized, but he acknowledged regret over his role in the war. Former President Ronald Reagan said he had ‘regret’ over Iran dealings. This came in January 1987, during his State of the Union broadcast. He said, “serious mistakes were made” in dealings with Iran in an attempt to guarantee the release of American hostages held in Lebanon.
In March 2023, the NYTimes published a political apology titled, “A Four-Decade Secret: One Man’s Story of Sabotaging Carter’s Re-election.” It revealed a secret mission to the middle east—to sabotage President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign. The hostage crisis in Iran had paralyzed his presidency and hampered his effort to win a second term. Mr. Carter’s best chance was to free the 52 Americans held captive before Election Day. But at least one prominent politician from Texas was determined to prevent Carter’s reelection. So, he reportedly told Middle East politicians to hold off releasing the hostages until Reagan was elected and they would get a better deal.
There are at least six widely reported American presidential apologies. (1) President Kennedy apologized for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, saying “We intend to profit from this lesson.” (2) President Richard Nixon apologized for Watergate five years after the Watergate scandal that forced him from office. He told British journalist David Frost that he had “let the American people down.” (3) President Ronald Reagan expressed regret for the 1987 Iran-Contra affair, saying, this happened on my watch.” (4) President Bill Clinton admitted in 1998 that the international community “did not react quickly enough after the killing began” during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. (5) President Obama apologized when Americans lost their health plans as a result of the federal healthcare law, following immense criticism of his longstanding refrain that Americans could keep their plans if they wanted. (6) In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which offered every Japanese American interned in the camps during the war a formal apology and $20,000 in compensation.
President George W. Bush never said, “I’m sorry.” He took the “I’m responsible” approach. Three weeks after the hurricane swamped New Orleans, Bush took advantage of a joint press conference with the then-Iraqi president to say: “Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn’t fully do its job right, I take responsibility.”
Enslaving millions of Black Americans marred this country for 246 years of institutionalized slavery and the subsequent discrimination of Jim Crow laws marked African Americans as second-class citizens. Few people were more deserving of a formal apology than their ancestors. A formal apology for slavery and Jim Crow was issued by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008.
“Modern political apologies have roots not only in ancient practices associated with individual remorse and repentance, but also in state-sanctioned torture. . . While some consider political apologies a progressive tool for restorative and transitional justice, others see them as ideological weapons deployed to reinforce the moral authority of elites as they cherry-pick which atrocities they will renounce for the benefit of their image. As academics debate the productivity and counterproductivity of political apologies, nationalists and others on the right tend to find the trends toward remorse to be an unpatriotic and even disloyal denunciation of ancestors and founding narratives.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologized twice for alleged sexual misconduct. Nationwide coverage detailed his public apology for making “potentially offensive comments and denying allegations about inappropriate touching. Both “apologies” were widely panned and left victims, Cuomo’s critics, and even some of his supporters unsatisfied. The Democratic leader of the New York State Senate called on him to resign.
Arguably, Georgia representative and sometime QAnon enthusiast Marjorie Taylor Greene wins the prize for ambiguity in trying to apologize without apologizing. When she met with “fellow House Republicans on Feb. 3, 2021, she may have apologized. Or she may not have. During the closed-door meeting in which Greene’s conspiracy theory beliefs came up, we don’t know exactly what went down because, well, it was behind closed doors. Speaking after the event, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy described Greene’s remarks as an apology, saying that Greene had denounced her previous statements and social media postings – which included the idea that mass school shootings are ‘false flag’ operations and that California forest fires were started by Jewish space lasers – and that ‘she said she was wrong.’ U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, one of 10 Republicans who voted in support of the 2021 impeachment of Donald Trump, had a different take: ‘She was somewhat contrite, but personally I never heard an apology.” He added, ‘I didn‘t hear an ‘I’m going to say this publicly.’”
There is an art, an acquired skill, and a consistent motive for political apologies. But politicians are not the only professionals to engage the public in a non-apology. The infamous USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar declined to apologize to the more than 160 women whom he’d sexually abused. He insisted an adequate apology was impossible. “There are no words that can describe the depth and breadth of how sorry I am for what has occurred. An acceptable apology to all of you is impossible to write and convey.”
Public apologies must pass ethical muster in context. Every American knows the context in which the J6 armed takeover of the Capitol occurred; An organized, well-armed mob stormed our nation’s Capitol at the behest of then-President Donald J. Trump. It was America’s darkest day precisely because the attack came from within. “The culmination of four years of hateful rhetoric and policies. Now, the Biden-Harris administration is faced with myriad decisions about how to deal with the policies and practices of the Trump administration, including those that have caused demonstrable harm both at home and abroad. The new administration has to decide how to address, and potentially redress, the political and other damage inflicted by the Trump administration as well as unite a divided nation.”
Should our government apologize? It has on many prior occasions apologized for government-driven misconduct, domestically or internationally. Those apologies were been given to survivor communities, like law enforcement, elected officers, and institutions like the Senate and the House. “While some apologies are unalloyed, others are accompanied by a variety of ‘defensive strategies.’ As many of our examples reveal, apologies can serve important foreign and domestic policy interests, but we emphasize that there are independent moral imperatives to apologize and express remorse for human rights abuses that should motivate States to consider following suit.”
Former President Trump has not apologized for his role in calling for and leading the J6 Attack. But his attackers have. The February 23, 2023, AP Headline said, “Some Capitol Rioters Apologize In Court For Jan. 6 But Downplay Crimes After.”
The New York Post reported, “Donald Trump said he would pardon and apologize to the hundreds of people convicted in connection with the Jan. 6 Capitol riots if elected to a second presidential term in 2024. I met with and I’m financially supporting people that are incredible, he said, referring to some of the more than 800 people that have been charged in the violent breach.”
CNN reported, “I will tell you, I will look very, very favorably about full pardons. If I decide to run and if I win, I will be looking very, very strongly about pardons. . . because we can’t let that happen. … And I mean full pardons with an apology to many.”
The ethical and moral imperatives underlying political apologies are straightforward. If a public officer is responsible and actual harm ensues from his or her misconduct they are generally expected to apologize. Those harmed by the misconduct have a right to expect a public apology. The apology must include a clear admission of error and an expression of regret. In accepting such a public apology, those harmed are entitled to restitution.
Leaders are responsible not only for their own behavior but also for that of their followers. Which is the guilty party? What is the degree of damage or harm caused by the leader’s conduct and the follower’s complicity? In the J6 context, an actual trespass, a multitude of crimes, and an onslaught of actual harm, and death came about at the call of a sitting president. The trespass by his followers caused incalculable harm that affected an entire nation. In this context, other national leaders have an ethical duty to do for the nation what the J6 leaders, prompters, and attackers will not do. They must apologize. Their apologies must be as personal as they are political. Their apologies must be delivered from the Capitol to the Country. Every expression matters and every word must become a part of the public record. If our leaders duck their ethical obligations to do what is morally right, then they must be replaced by leaders we can trust to protect and preserve the rule of law in America. No less. No more.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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