There have been scandals in high places before. People ask: what's so different about these? I would say many things, but one distinctive feature could use some exploration as the parade of semi-penitents continues to straggle across our TV screens. This is the perfection by our leaders -- political, Pentecostal, financial and other -- of what could be called the no-fault confession. It is a truly awesome art form.
Let's start with the grandaddy and, in a way, the most important version of all. It has been a long time developing to its present point of perfection. This is the presidential confession of . . . well, of something or other, it's never clear what . . . in the wake of a national government-sponsored disaster. From the Bay of Pigs through Jimmy Carter's failed attempt to rescue the embassy hostages to the revelations of this administration's infuriating dealings with the Iranians, with several stops between, the procedure has been essentially the same. After waits of varying length that only heighten the suspense, a grim-faced president will come before the people and announce that he "accepts" responsibility for what happened. PRESIDENT ACCEPTS "RESPONSIBILITY," we will headline.
What is so fascinating about this formulation is, first, that it implies that the assumption of responsibility, which is his whether he wants it or not, is somehow optional; it thus also suggests that his acknowledgment of this self-evident and inescapable fact is an act of statesmanship and valor. Then, for some reason and as if on cue, we all validate the flimflam by expressing our relief that he has had the courage to do "the right thing" and our admiration that he stepped right up and took the blame.
Except, of course, that the executive officeholder or other bigwig who has employed this language usually hasn't taken the blame at all. This is the second key feature of the gambit and its particular beauty. For the leader to refuse all further discussion of who did what, as they usually do, insistently meeting every request for elaboration instead with the ostentatiously clipped and wooden reiteration ("I have already said that I accept the responsibility. I am just not going to get into that") is to powerfully suggest that in fact somebody else did it. Our hero now looks even better; he is seen to be stoically taking heat for his subordinates -- what a guy! This suggestion will likely be reinforced pretty quickly by a sudden spring shower of unattributed inside-dope stories saying which subordinate's foul-up it really was. This is the working presidential packet.
Naturally it is not available to lesser mortals, but a more modest variation of it is. This is what I am coming to think of as the "how thoughtless and insensitive of me -- I could just kick myself " defense. It, too, is a no-fault confession. Jim and Tammy Bakker, along with some witnesses in the Iran-contra hearings and to some extent also Gary Hart, have incorporated it into their not-quite-authentic apologies. Unlike the typical presidential maneuver, the hidden message here is not that they were too busy doing important, good things to keep an eye on the staff, but that they were too busy doing important, good things to keep an eye on themselves. How could they not have realized -- they now rhetorically ask themselves by way of assuaging the public -- how it would look or whether there wasn't something worrisome here or something. They are really sorry, they tell us, for any pain they may have inadvertently caused us.
Disingenuous though it may be, their solicitousness of our feelings -- heavily overdone, downright syrupy -- is the brilliant element here. It makes us think that maybe we are at fault. Gosh, they look so sad. Are we making too much of a small, innocent nothing? Are we being petty and mean? Are we cranks? Are we making unreasonable demands of these good, giving, busy people? The fault doesn't quite cross the line over to our side of the ledger, but a hefty portion of the embarrassment has been transferred to us. We are now substantially more embarrassed to be asking about that personal check, that encounter, that expenditure, that sub rosa little dealing than they are to have to own up to it. Just one more question . . . and we don't want to belabor this and we understand it was at a time when you were deeply involved with the emergency-famine-relief program and you had a broken leg and the vestry had just burned down, but if you wouldn't mind going over that part about the $800,000 just one more time?
There are other strategies available for the public perpetrator who wants to confess without conceding fault or just about anything else. One is to confess promiscuously and indiscriminately to absolutely everything, more or less in the manner of those people who turn up at police stations and announce that they are responsible for every unsolved crime and mystery on the blotter going back to the disappearance of Judge Crater. When a public person who is under assault for some dereliction does this, wildly overstating the degree of his responsibility for things that have gone wrong, he gets points for his willingness to face the music and, more importantly, he gets a strange kind of blanket absolution, since he obviously couldn't have been responsible for all those things and is then seen as a self-appointed fall guy who must be selflessly covering for someone else.
There is also the "system" dodge. Just as the way we talk these days of "epidemics" and "contagions" of wrongdoing implies that misconduct is something you catch when somebody else in the elevator sneezes, so some among us have developed ways of implying, even as they seem to acknowledge the error of their ways, that it was all but inevitable that this would come about because the "system" was rigged to make it so. In the dock they bang the drum as reformers and, once again, like the ones who are oversolicitous of our feelings, make us feel as though it is we who countenance the system who have done wrong.
I swing between two theories as to why all this is true. One is that we are prosecuting and penalizing too many people for too many things these days and overdoing and trivializing ethical questions, drowning the large in the small. The other is the opposite: that we have become morally so laid back and complaisant that nothing is regarded as seriously wrong anymore. But whichever view is nearer the truth, the outcome is the same. Confessing and/or apologizing in 1987 means never having to really mean you're sorry.
1987, Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.
In the scandals of 1987, making an apology doesn't necessarily mean that you are really sorry.