Thursday, March 13, 2008

If…

Hillary Clinton offered an apology to black voters for remarks by her husband after the South Carolina.

The New York senator, who is in a tight race with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, struck several sorry notes at an evening forum sponsored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a group of more than 200 black community newspapers across the country.

Her biggest apology came in response to a question about comments by her husband, Bill Clinton, after the South Carolina primary, which Obama won handily. Bill Clinton said Jesse Jackson also won South Carolina when he ran for president in 1984 and 1988, a comment many viewed as belittling Obama’s success.

”I want to put that in context. You know I am sorry if anyone was offended. It was certainly not meant in any way to be offensive,” Hillary Clinton said. ”We can be proud of both Jesse Jackson and Senator Obama.”

I’m sure she meant it sincerely, but when you include the phrase “if anyone was offended” in an apology, you’re giving yourself an out, as if to say, “if no one was offended, then I’m not apologizing.” It’s only the people who took offense who should accept the apology, putting the burden on them.

That’s not how it works. An apology should be without qualification: no ifs, ands, or buts. It should be simple and sincere, without a dissertation on context and intent, and the longer it takes to get it out and the more qualifiers and explanations that are tagged on, the more the force of the apology and the level of sincerity is diminished. Get it out, mean it, and make amends.

Some people, including Senator Clinton, have a tough time dealing with apologizing.

As first lady and senator, Clinton rarely cedes an inch to her critics. On the issue of her vote to authorize the Iraq war, for instance, she steadfastly has refused to apologize, coming close by saying she regrets it, despite calls from many anti-war voters in the party to make a more explicit mea culpa.

She is probably one of those people who sees apologizing as a sign of weakness; if she apologizes, that means she was wrong, and if she’s wrong, then her critics are right, and that leads to self-doubt, and on and on. But it comes across as false bravado covering for insecurities. In that regard, she’s in good company; history is rife with non-apologies. Richard Nixon never apologized for Watergate; the only thing he was sorry for was that he got caught. George W. Bush has famously never acknowledged that he’s made any mistakes in his administration, and along with him goes Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, or John Bolton, none of whom has had the guts to admit that they got it all horribly wrong in Iraq, Afghanistan, and just about everything else that they’ve touched.

It’s an old lesson, but apparently it has to be repeated: apologizing without qualification is liberating, and it’s amazing how forgiving people are when you do it. It’s admitting that you’re human, prone to make mistakes like everybody else, and rather than tarnish your reputation, it can enhance it. Senator Clinton could learn a few things from Eliot Spitzer. He apologized, he took the blame, he didn’t try to pin his failings on someone else, he didn’t lash out at the media or try to put it in context (whew; I really don’t want to know why he felt he had to pay for sex).

An apology can bruise the ego for a while, but that’s the point. And leave out the If.