Political Apologies: When politicians and other famous people can't say they're sorry

When is an apology NOT an apology

Marilyn Davenport, a 74-year-old California Republican, recently emailed this photo of President Obama to a small group of Republican committee members in an effort to pour additional fuel on the extinguished fire of his birth certificate controversy. After a weekend of criticism, including some pointed comments from the county's Republican chairman, Davenport issued an apology. Here was that apology:

"To my fellow Americans and to everyone else who has seen this email I forwarded and was offended by my action, I humbly apologize and ask for your forgiveness of my unwise behavior. I say unwise because at the time I received and forwarded the email, I didn't stop to think about the historic implications and other examples of how this could be offensive."

Unfortunately, this is not an apology. An apology needs to take responsibility for the action. This "apology" does not take any responsibility and instead offers consolation only to those who were offended. This is typical political wordsmithing, intended to cloud an issue and allow the politician to have an explanation for those on both sides of the political fence. To her birther supporters, she can claim she did not actually say that she was apologizing for her belief. She can say the same thing to any racist supporters she might have. To her detractors, she can claim that she sincerely apologized. She also claims her behavior was unwise, but doesn't say why. Was it unwise because it damaged her politically or was it unwise because it's racist behavior? A real apology would look something like this:

"To my fellow Americans and to everyone else who has seen this email I forwarded, I would like to apologize for my demeaning and racist actions. Because of my lack of awareness of historical issues regarding race, I failed to understand the possible implications of my actions. I promise never to do anything like this again in my political career and fully verse myself in racist issues that affect people of color every day in this country. While I know that my ignorance cannot be an excuse for such misbehavior, I ask for your forgiveness as I attempt to correct these actions through education and awareness."

Politicians of all types now issue these non-apologies and every American with a sense of propriety should be offended to their core. Politicians clamor about people taking responsibility for themselves, but cannot even do so when issuing a simple apology.

There's a grammatical reason this isn't an apology. It uses passive voice. An active apology would say: "I apologize for offending..." By making it a passive sentence, it removes the action from the offense. It leaves the door open for those that weren't offended. I guess if you aren't opposed to beatings and racism, you weren't offended.

In February 8, 2008, Berkeley mayor Tom Bates issued a non-apology for asking a Marine recruiting station to leave the city with the typical "We apologize for any offense" line.

When Trent Lott said that he thought Strom Thurmond should be president, he ended up issuing the standard non-apology: "I'm sorry to anyone who has offended by my statement."

The list of politicians who have issued the non-apology are endless.

And these non-apologies aren't limited to politicians. On March 24, singer Chris Brown issued a non-apology in March for throwing a fit on the set of Good Morning America. Brown, charged with felony battery in connection with a domestic violence case, pulled the same "I apologize if you offended by me" bit. Can you imagine if he issued the same apology for the domestic violence charge: "I'm truly sorry if you were offended by me beating up my girlfriend."

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake did the same thing after the wardrobe malfunction flap.

Arnold Schwarzenegger did it when he was accused of sexual harassment.

Hank Williams Jr. did it when he issued his apology for comparing Obama to Hitler.

People of all political stripes and fans of entertainers who pull the non-apology stunt should demand better. They should demand that people take responsibility for their actions and explain why they are sorry. Take the time to write letters to the offenders and letters to your local newspaper every time you see this behavior. It'll send the signal to our politicians and entertainers that we're not stupid.


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