- Art history majors, relax. The president doesn't think that you should chuck your books on contemporary color theory and go take a course in carpentry. In late January, Obama told a crowd at a factory in Wisconsin that people could make more money with skills in manufacturing than an art history degree. Yesterday, Obama ate his words, confessing in a personal note to a disgruntled art historian that art history was actually one of his favorite subjects in school.
- As presidential apologies go, this one wasn't so bad. It was less humiliating, certainly, than the time the Obama White House had to ask forgiveness from the American (and British) people for incorrectly insisting they still had a bust of Winston Churchill on loan from Britain.
- Or the time Obama had to apologize to Kamala Harris, California's attorney general, for extolling her beauty in front of a group of wealthy donors.
- Over the years, presidents have gotten pretty good at expressing regret. But the magical words "I'm sorry" don't fall often from chief executives' lips. In the 1870s, Ulysses S. Grant pioneered the ubiquitous "mistakes were made" in a note appended to his final annual report to Congress. Tersely acknowledging the waves of scandals that plagued his administration, Grant wrote, "Mistakes were made, as all can see and I admit." True humility.
- Sometimes presidents are also required to accept apologies. This was not Woodrow Wilson's forte. An outraged Floridian golfer, unaware that he was sharing the course with the leader of the free world, hurled obscenities at the president after Wilson sent a golf ball "whizzing near his head." Wilson, after accepting the golfer's apology for the unwarranted cussing, did not offer one of his own.
- If art historians are a fairly innocuous group for presidents to ruffle, the U.S. Marines are not. Harry Truman put this to the test in 1950, after declaring in a private letter that the Marines have a "propaganda machine that is almost equivalent to Stalin."
- These mea culpas are, at times, belated. In 1975, Gerald Ford apologized to the family of Frank Olson, a government scientist who died in the early 1950s after being given LSD by the CIA.
- But sometimes, a president's gotta apologize after falsely accusing his Secret Service agent of breaking his ribs. After his 1981 assassination attempt, that's exactly what Ronald Reagan did.
- Not all of Reagan's apologies were as charming. After a delegation of professional women was turned away from a White House tour, Reagan managed to make matters worse by promising to "do penance" for the mix-up. He announced, to groans from the audience, that he "happened to be one who believes that if it wasn't for women, men would still be walking around in skin suits, carrying clubs."
- What to do when a presidential apology goes south? If you're Bill Clinton, just keep apologizing.
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