Crafting a Better Political Apology

Politicians do bad things, they get caught, and they apologize. Usually, these apologies fail to satisfy anyone because, as a rule, politicians apologize very badly. Most recently, after admitting to frequenting prostitutes, Senator David Vitter (R-LA) offered his "deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way." The apology was tepid, unconvincing, and rightly derided.

Vitter could have done better if he had listened to a group of linguists, psychologists, and anthropologists who have begun, over the last several decades, to understand why we say "I'm sorry" and what a successful apology looks and sounds like.

According to anthropologist Joan Silk of UCLA, an apology is a way of returning a relationship to where it was before it was damaged. Good apologies reduce the desire for retribution, make the victim more likely to act positively towards the offender, and increase the victim's willingness to forgive. A successful political apology minimizes the effect of the transgression in the next election by restoring a damaged relationship between a politician and voters. Newt Gingrich managed to keep his job as Speaker of the House after he apologized promptly and fully for ethical transgressions for which he was later fined $300,000.

Less obviously, an apology doesn't have to work on everyone for it to be effective. People are very reluctant to reject apologies, and people who do reject one are viewed negatively by others. This creates social pressure to accept an apology even if it is not entirely satisfying. Politicians, therefore, only have to convince some people of their sincerity -- those people will do the rest of the work.

Nonetheless, a successful apology must convince the listener that the person who makes it is truly contrite -- that he (or she) is genuinely sorry, not sorry he got caught. A good apology must contain an expression such as "I'm sorry" or "excuse me" that indicates the statement is an apology, an admission of responsibility, an offer of restitution or repair, and a promise not to repeat the offense. These elements were most thoroughly documented by the Cross Cultural Speech Acts Realization Project in the late 1980s. Each element independently makes the apology more effective, so a good apology should have all of them.

When restitution is not possible or meaningful, as is often the case with the kinds of offenses politicians commit, a successful apology is a variant of "I'm sorry, what I did was wrong, and I won't do it again."

Politicians are particularly bad at admitting guilt, even though it is probably the single most important element of a good apology. The most egregious offender in recent times is former Senator Robert Packwood who famously said, after being accused of sexual assault, harassment, and abuse, "I'm apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged that I did."

Similarly, Trent Lott lost his position as Senate majority leader after praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign in part because his apologies, at least at first, avoided admitting any actual wrongdoing. Lott said, "a poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past." This failed to convince almost anyone since his original statement was clearly meant to convey exactly the impression that he "embraced the discarded policies of the past."

The admission of guilt should also explain what exactly the offense was. Vitter's apology for his "sin" was much less specific than, for instance, then-New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey's apology a few years ago for engaging "in an adult consensual affair with another man." In most cases, the public knows what the politician did wrong; avoiding naming the offense undermines the admission of guilt, which is essential for a credible apology.

Excuses are another way of denying guilt, and therefore undermine apologies. Apologizing while blaming drug addiction or upbringing is as common in political apologies as it is counterproductive. Disgraced former Congressman Mark Foley managed to blame both alcoholism and childhood sexual abuse by a priest for his lewd messages to underage congressional pages. The priest was then tracked down in Malta and blamed his abuse on alcoholism and addiction to tranquilizers.

Finally, an apology should be prompt -- ideally coming before the public learns of the misbehavior or, if the transgression was public, as soon as possible after it occurred. An next-day apology like Barack Obama campaign's for its attack on Hillary Clinton (in the form of the D-Punjab memo) is much better than a delayed one like Senator Lott's, which came five days after his the original statement and after he had tried to downplay his endorsement of segregation as something he said during "a lighthearted celebration."

An apology with all of these components is essential, but presentation matters as well. The sincerity with which the apology is delivered is important of course, but politicians seem to recognize this and usually do a decent job of faking it. They do not, however, often select a wording original enough to seem honest and sincere. Although apologies are deeply formulaic, a successful apology should not sound like it has been thought over, poll-tested, and vetted by lawyers -- even if it has been.

Senator Vitter's apology, typically, was deeply flawed. He said, "This was a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible. Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling. Out of respect for my family, I will keep my discussion of the matter there-with God and them. But I certainly offer my deep and sincere apologies to all I have disappointed and let down in any way."

Vitter's apology has the part that everyone gets -- the "I'm sorry" statement. It also has the admission of responsibility, though the "of course" undermines it to some extent, as does the fact that he avoids actually saying what he did. This may have been to prevent being caught in a lie as more details emerged -- as they later did -- but the absence of a description makes the admission of guilt less convincing. Because Vitter has not made clear exactly what it is he is admitting to doing, every new detail, no matter how small, will undermine his credibility.

His apology also lacks a promise of better behavior in the future, and his statement that he has been forgiven by God and his wife presumes that this absolves him to some extent, and thereby undercuts the apology by suggesting that he doesn't think it is entirely necessary.

The apology's sincerity is further undermined by its clichéd phrasing. How many times have we heard a politician offer his "deep and sincere" apologies? And why does he qualify the apology by directing it only to "all I have disappointed and let down in any way?" A more effective statement would have included a longer and more personal expression of guilt, moral anguish, and deep remorse and would have been directed towards all his constituents.

Taken together, these flaws make Vitter's apology almost completely useless. It's his loss -- a real apology is not always enough to resuscitate a career, but a notional one certainly isn't helpful. Vitter, like so many other politicians, apologized because he knew that he should, not because he was sorry. And that's why he will receive little forgiveness.