Clin­ton’s ‘Short­cir­cuited’ apol­ogy

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— One of the most un­in­ten­tion­ally re­veal­ing mo­ments of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cam­paign so far came dur­ing her re­cent, un­con­vinc­ing ex­pla­na­tion of the email af­fair: “I may have short-cir­cuited it and for that I … ah … you know, will try to clar­ify.”

Most of the re­sult­ing ridicule has fo­cused on the “short-cir­cuited” por­tion of the state­ment, which seems a par­tic­u­larly gen­tle eu­phemism for pre­var­i­ca­tion. But it is the later por­tion of her quote that ex­poses a se­ri­ous po­lit­i­cal dis­abil­ity: an in­grained, al­most au­to­matic re­course to guile.

The mo­ment re­ally should be watched in or­der to be prop­erly ap­pre­ci­ated. Clin­ton launches her sen­tence with, “I may have short-cir­cuited it and for that … .” If this were an SAT ques­tion, the nat­u­ral com­ple­tion would be “… and for that I sin­cerely apol­o­gize.” Clin­ton looks like she is headed in that di­rec­tion, but stops her­self. The re­sult — “and for that I … ah … you know, will try to clar­ify.”

Then she pro­ceeds with the op­po­site of clar­i­fi­ca­tion: “I have ac­knowl­edged re­peat­edly that us­ing two email ac­counts was a mis­take. And I take re­spon­si­bil­ity for that. But I do think … hav­ing him [FBI Direc­tor James Comey] say that my an­swers to the FBI were truth­ful and then I should quickly add what I said was consistent with what I had said pub­licly. And that’s re­ally sort of, in my view, try­ing to tie both ends to­gether.”

The com­plex­ity of Clin­to­nian knots is one rea­son that only 34 per­cent of Amer­i­can in a re­cent poll judge her “hon­est and trust­wor­thy.” In the email scan­dal we have seen de­cep­tions used to cover de­cep­tions; then a min­i­mal­ist apol­ogy, filled with caveats, which them­selves must be re­vised; and then a fuller apol­ogy, long after it ap­pears cyn­i­cal and forced.

It is amaz­ing how many prob­lems are caused, in pol­i­tics and in life, by an in­abil­ity to sin­cerely apol­o­gize.

I am not re­fer­ring here to the harder and richer form of apol­ogy and for­give­ness re­quired, say, in post-geno­cide Rwanda or post-apartheid South Africa. In such cases, the pub­lic ac­cep­tance of guilt by wrong­do­ers, the ex­pres­sion of re­gret, the recog­ni­tion of ter­ri­ble harm, al­low whole so­ci­eties to af­firm a new set of moral norms and be­gin the process of heal­ing. I have met Rwan­dans who live peace­fully on the same street with peo­ple who mur­dered their fam­ily mem­bers. Such for­give­ness, when your en­counter it, is heroic. It is, as po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist Han­nah Arendt ar­gued, “the only re­ac­tion which does not merely re-act but acts anew and un­ex­pect­edly.”

No, my con­cern is pub­lic apol­ogy in a nor­mal, ev­ery­day po­lit­i­cal set­ting. Some peo­ple find the whole process to be bunk. But for­give­ness is the only force that al­lows flawed men and women to change their minds and re­con­struct their lives on firmer ground. It pre­serves the pos­si­bil­ity of moral progress. For most of us, get­ting what we truly de­serve — ap­peal­ing to stan­dards of jus­tice alone — would not be pleas­ant. We know we should show for­give­ness to oth­ers be­cause we so often have need of it our­selves.

When an of­fi­cial makes a sin­cere apol­ogy, it can para­dox­i­cally im­prove his or her pub­lic stand­ing. The au­then­tic ad­mis­sion of wrong in­volves a type of courage. It shows vul­ner­a­bil­ity and hu­man­ity.

The qual­i­ties that turn peo­ple into suc­cess­ful politi­cians — self-con­fi­dence, am­bi­tion, per­sis­tence, thick skin — seem to work against them in sit­u­a­tions that re­quire hu­mil­ity and gen­uine self-crit­i­cism. Those virtues, by any his­tor­i­cal stan­dard, are dra­mat­i­cally lack­ing in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees.

Clin­ton seems to have drawn all the wrong lessons from a life­time of scan­dal man­age­ment. Her de­ter­mi­na­tion to avoid par­ti­san scru­tiny re­sulted in ac­tions — keep­ing personal con­trol of her emails and de­stroy­ing a bunch of them — that have in­vited mas­sive par­ti­san scru­tiny and con­firmed pre-ex­ist­ing sus­pi­cions about her char­ac­ter.

The rit­ual of apol­ogy and for­give­ness has an un­avoid­ably moral root. It is “in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked,” ac­cord­ing to the­olo­gian L. Gre­gory Jones, “to a com­mit­ment to change the be­hav­ior that would lead to a dif­fer­ent way of life.” A sin­cere apol­ogy can be re­demp­tive. What Jones calls “spin­ning sor­row” is among the low­est of po­lit­i­cal acts.

When Clin­ton mouths the words, “I am sorry,” and sur­rounds them with a thick cloud of self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, we are only con­vinced that she re­grets be­ing caught. Rather than mak­ing her look vul­ner­a­ble and hu­man, it makes her seem de­vi­ous and supremely po­lit­i­cal. Does any­one re­ally be­lieve the Clin­ton way of pol­i­tics has changed?

This is the Amer­i­can emer­gency: an acute short­age of pub­lic in­tegrity at the high­est level of our pol­i­tics.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post. com.

WASH­ING­TON

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