In a bitterly fought presidential campaign like this one, there are plenty of exaggerations, accusations, misstatements and plain old lies — in short, no lack of things to apologize for. But since apologies are seen as a sign of weak leadership, who wants to apologize?
Almost no one, says Edwin Battistella, a Southern Oregon University English professor and author of the newly expanded “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.”
How our present crop of politicians apologize is usually in a roundabout ramble that paints a context where staff can take much of the blame and where it looks like the politician has done a lot of study of a big issue and really meant something different, which they will now explain.
When Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said the Reagans were advocates of AIDS research, it roused the anger of many in that field who felt it was untrue. So she couched her apology, Battistella says, by saying they backed stem-cell research and she “misspoke … and for that I’m sorry.”
Battistella reflects on Clinton’s style, noting, “She doesn’t like to apologize. It may go back to her work on health care in the '90s when she said she regretted the failure of the Clinton health plan and the media characterized that as an apology for her failure. After that she was cautious.”
Republican nominee Donald Trump “seems to resist apologizing in general … It would be smart for him to apologize, but it’s probably not in his nature,” Battistella says.
The closest Trump has come during the campaign was his re-tweeted slur on Sen. Ted Cruz’s wife. He later said that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have sent it.
This is one of many forms where you can seem to apologize, but you’re not really doing it; you’re saying you’re “sorry” it turned out as it did, but you learned from it because you’re smart, Battistella says.
Battistella notes it's a “fake apology” that Trump should at least try doing instead of attempting to talk his way out of the uproar regarding his remarks toward the Khan family, whose son died while in the military.
Battistella was recently quoted in an article by Bahar Gholipour headlined "Trump Crossed Deeply Ingrained Moral Boundary With Khan Comments" on huffingtonpost.com.
"I thought of adding Trump to the paperback version, but realized there wasn’t much to say," Battistella says in the article, referring to a dearth of Trump apologies.
“If you apologize sincerely, American voters will respect it,” he says. “People think how they’ve felt when a friend has apologized. You feel a sense of reconciliation. Apologizing may be thought of as weakness in politics, but it’s a sign of strength.”
A real apology has a progression, he says. You name what you did wrong, explore the ethics of it and why you were wrong, then apologize with no waffling.
A good example was Bernie Sanders’ apology over his staff accessing Clinton data. “He did a nice job,” says Battistella. Cruz, he adds, did pretty good in apologizing to fellow candidate Ben Carson when the Cruz staff put out the false word that Carson was quitting. He called it a “mistake” (which takes away from the apology), but did say, “I apologize.”
But Cruz plowed new ground for non-apologies, however, after saying Trump had “New York values,” Battistella says. Cruz flipped it to an insult, saying he’d be happy to apologize “to the millions of New Yorkers who have been let down by the liberal politicians of that state,” Battistella says in his blog (http://bit.ly/2aGWNk8).
Most politicians “short-cut” their apologies — reframing them as “mistakes,” as it seems to indicate that staffers pulled the snafu, he says.
Bad behavior by presidential candidates isn't new, Battistella says, referring to the race between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr in 1800 nearly started a civil war.
“What’s new is the pace," Battistella says. "It’s much faster now — and with many surprises. It’s the oddest election I’ve ever seen. And there may still be big surprises.”
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.