To err is human,
wrote Alexander Pope. Since most of us find it incredibly easy to make mistakes, you’d think we’d have a leg up on asking for forgiveness. But, as pop music continually reminds us, sorry really is the hardest word to say. And in the modern political landscape, apologizing properly—whether for personal missteps or on behalf of Americans—is both a political imperative and a feat of linguistic brilliance.
“Graves,” a new original series from EPIX, follows the path of a former president, Richard Graves, who is looking to acknowledge his mistakes and reshape his legacy, 25 years after leaving office. Tune into the show to learn his story—and read on for an inside look at the what, why and how of the political mea culpa.
The word “apology” once meant a defense or an explanation. But today, it’s synonymous with an admission of wrongdoing—and it’s perceived by some as a sign of weakness. How can the leader of the free world acknowledge failure while still appearing capable? And should he (or she), given that it could make him—and thus our country—appear vulnerable?
The fact is: Presidential apologies satisfy the same psychological needs as personal apologies do. When a failure occurs or a wrongdoing is committed, a good apology soothes wounded feelings, and assures that the error won’t be repeated. It helps re-establish trust, and renews good will when it has been lost.
Terms of apology:
Presidents say they’re
sorry through the ages
Terms of apology:
Presidents say they’re sorry through the ages
Wired to be right
So why is it so hard? Some experts believe that if you don't admit you've done anything wrong, then it's almost like not doing anything wrong at all. If there is no admission of fault, then there is no need to take responsibility. Others feel that we may have a neurological bias toward believing that we’re always 'doing the right thing' —such as eating a healthful diet—even when the candy bar in our hand indicates otherwise.
Finally, it could be that not apologizing makes us feel better about ourselves, while apologizing makes us feel worse. Two 2013 Australian studies found that “the benefits people felt from refusing to apologize appeared to trump any potential negative effect on self-esteem resulting from the defense of harmful actions.”
Regret is just saying,
‘I’m sorry that happened,’
but it doesn’t have
any admission of
The art of the
While we’ve all played around with what, exactly, constitutes an apology (for example, “I’m sorry you took offense at my remark”), for a president, the stakes are much, much higher. Whether speaking personally or on behalf of the country, the president must achieve the goal of the apology (regain trust or soothe anger) without opening the door to further damage.
That’s where speechwriters, PR experts and legal counsel come in. The basic apology includes three components: an expression of remorse, admission of the mistake and a promise to make the situation right, if possible. Admitting a mistake is the most problematic, since it could expose the president and/or the government to legal liability for compensation.
A speaker could simply omit details and keep things deliberately vague, but, according to psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert, while this may “…safeguard them from lawsuits and incriminating themselves, it doesn’t necessarily win over the public and elicit forgiveness.” The far safer option is to instead express regret: a wish that an event hadn’t happened. “Regret is just saying, ‘I’m sorry that happened but it doesn’t have any admission of wrongdoing,’” says Jeffrie G. Murphy, professor of law and philosophy at Arizona State University College of Law.
Watch the first
episode of “Graves”
Watch the first episode of “Graves”
In 2006, after making what were perceived as offensive remarks at at a Democratic rally in Pasadena City, California, Senator John Kerry initially explained that his comments were a botched joke. He then issued a formal apology, saying, “I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted.“
If this incident seems to have parallels in the current presidential race, perhaps it is because, as Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology and urban studies at Forham University, says, “Voters sadly expect ambitious candidates to say or do anything to succeed without getting caught. Many see a candidate's apology as part of an intricate formula, where advisors are paid to tell candidates what to say and how to say it.”
One thing seems certain: as long as there are presidents, there will be presidential apologies.