Friday, November 14, 2014

The Secret Life of the American President: Apologies and Lack Thereof

There are so many lasting catchphrase moments of the 1990’s.

But one of the most lasting legacies from the latter part of the 1990's will always be...
Allow me to turn back the clock for you to a very different United States. It’s 1998. The Chicago Bulls are still awesome. The Titanic is the #1 movie in America and it’s still in theaters. Little Allie Little is the ripe old age of six! 
That's me! Six years old and ready for pumpkins!
It’s an unusually warm El Nino winter, which spawns monstrous storms throughout the nation (Burt 2014). Similarly, a situation is becoming considerably heated in the White House and a political storm of humungous proportions is brewing surrounding the breaking sex scandal. The President of the United States, Bill Clinton, has already denied an affair with a former intern of the White House, Monica Lewinsky. However, given supplied evidence in the form of taped conversations with Linda Tripp and an infamously neglected blue dress, the President is forced to come clean. On August 17th, 1998, Bill Clinton gave a televised address to the nation in which he admitted to his inappropriate relationship with Monica (Miller 2013). Thus began the firestorm that would lead to Clinton’s impeachment. But in watching this video, much like with any speech from a politician, you have to wonder… Just who is this speech for anyway? What’s the ulterior motive behind releasing a statement this large and inflammatory, beyond clearing up his testimony?

The bottom line is this: Clinton’s speech reads and rings as an apology but it couldn’t be further from one. The goal of this speech was not to apologize, but to shame the audience (the American public) into moving past the incident. How did he accomplish this task through this speech? And how well did it work?

According to a how-to article by Forbes, “A real apology actually has three parts, and goes like this: ‘I’m sorry; this is what I did; and this is what I am doing to correct it’” (Fitzpatrick 2014). A well-crafted apology is a subtle and important art that many do not learn or choose to forego. Let’s see how well this speech lines up with this formula, if it is even meant to.

1.     “I’m sorry.”
First and foremost, the most important and primary component of an apology is an expression of one’s remorse. There is no mention of the word “sorry” in the entirety of this address, which is very deliberate. The closest the former President comes to admitting a wrongdoing is in his use of the word “regret.” This comes in the context of explaining away the continued silence surrounding the ordeal, as the President explains, “[…] my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that” (CNN). While the use of “regret” is symbolically important in the creation and appearance of an apology, it does not do the work that “sorry” is meant to do. Regret indicates that one feels “[…] sad, repentant, or disappointed” or is “[…] used in polite formulas to express sadness over something unfortunate or unpleasant” ("Regret"). Sorry is an indication of penitence ("Sorry"). In short, Clinton’s (or perhaps Clinton’s speech writers’) choice to use “regret” versus “sorry” is the first clue that this is not an address meant as apology, but rather meant to distract the audience with a façade of penitence. The regret is not in the action itself, but in the discovery and reception of the action.

2.     “This is what I did.”
The admission of the wrongdoing is often one of the pitfalls of the apology formula, though it can be the simplest and most excruciating parts of the process. Specifically referring to the offending action or words, rather than vaguely disassociating oneself from it, indicates knowledge of why it is wrong and sincere desire to heed it for the future. In analyzing former President Clinton’s address, it is difficult to assess whether this part of the formula had been filled given the intimate nature of the transgression and the very public nature of the address. The closest Clinton comes to acknowledgement of the specific wrongdoing occurs in this admission:

“Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible” (CNN).

This is completely counter to previous statements Clinton had given during his trial, leading to the infamous "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" soundbite. Given the fact that the audience of this address includes citizenry that Clinton would not want to personally tell of his sexual exploits (children, elderly Southern church-goers with large hats, his own wife, etc.), the vague nature of this part of his “apology” is understandable and permissible. However, this is the nearest instance of apology that Clinton attempts in regards to the action itself. There is a second part to this second part of admission and it occurs in his lies by omission. According to the definitions given during his trial, the President never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as he supposedly only received sexual pleasure from her. His admission of omission therefore comes out in this public address as well:

“I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people […] I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors […], by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct” (CNN).

Admitting to his desire to evade culpability is the crux of the address and the reason to speak out at all. So, basically, Clinton’s admission of wrongdoing boils down to, “I did something, didn’t tell you everything, and then you found out that I didn’t tell you everything.” A solid C- effort.

3.     “This is what I am doing to correct it.”
Correction of missteps is a vital aspect to overcoming the misstep in the first place. While it may seem that, in his address, Clinton does not touch on this aspect at all it is done deliberately. This section is mostly not present and intentionally vague and this choice is, within itself, a reflection of having taken steps to correct the issue. Since the one of the issues of his transgression is the fact that it was made so public by his presidency, the fact that he chooses to make the steps he is undertaking to correct the issue private is itself a beginning of these corrections. On the outside, there is no mention of specific steps beyond this one: “But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours” (CNN). This section of his address, in owning the admission of transgression, shames the very audience eager to listen for the details of his affair. Clinton here admonishes, “Now it is time -- in fact, it is past time to move on” (CNN). This shames works to disguise his lack of apology with shame tactics.

So where does this address leave us today? What is the lasting impact that this seemingly presidential apology provides? Given Clinton's favorable poll numbers in the wake of this admission, it seems that coming clean is a good move. In that August, Clinton's favorability ranking was 69%, which seems impossibly high compared to the most current 40% for Obama today (Miller 2013; Gallup Daily). Perhaps this public address leaves its impact in its simple truth: we all make mistakes. Even presidents make mistakes and when this occurs, owning these makes works far better in the long run. According to the reception of this address, one doesn't even need to say "sorry" outright for it to be accepted just the same. I might even argue that it's an unfortunately glaring instance of the privilege that white, heterosexual men in power are given in a hyper-patriarchal society when they are so easily pardoned by the public. Ultimately, it is clear that former President Bill Clinton did well to issue this very public and formal outline of his transgression and this carefully crafted not-apology worked in his favor for years to come.

And that he could play a dang saxophone.

Works Cited
Burt, Christopher C. "The El Nino of 1997-1998." Weather Extremes :. Weather Underground, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
Fitzpatrick, Molly. "How To Apologize The Right Way: An Apology Actually Has Three Parts." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 13 Mar. 2014. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
"Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval." Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval. Gallup, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
Miller, Jake. "15 Years Ago: Bill Clinton's Historic Denial." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 26 Jan.   2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
"Regret." New Oxford American Dictionary. 2nd ed. N.d. Print.
"Sorry." New Oxford American Dictionary. 2nd ed. N.d. Print.
"Transcript: President Bill Clinton's Speech." CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.

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