Take a sad song and make it better

Hillary had better learn the art of apology — and fast
By STEVEN STARK  |  April 11, 2007

HELL NO, I WON’T SAY “NO”: Hillary Clinton refused to recant her vote for the Iraq War on the theory that it will make her appear weak.

In two weeks the Democratic candidates will gather for their first debate, where Hillary Clinton’s failure to apologize for her vote authorizing the Iraq War will undoubtedly become a hot topic yet again.

For those who have slept through the early phase of the campaign, the other top Democratic candidates have either disavowed that vote (John Edwards), or are on record as saying they never would have voted for the resolution in the first place (Barack Obama).

It’s clear to most observers that if Hillary knew then what she knows now, she would have voted “No.” (An interesting questioning of that view is Michael Crowley’s April 2 New Republic cover story, which argues that Clinton has a serious, consistent, and long-standing belief in deference to presidential authority in matters of war and diplomacy.) Yet she still won’t apologize, apparently on the theory that to do so would appear weak, vacillating, and downright unpresidential because it would weaken the office to which she aspires. Her advisers also apparently think that such an apology would hurt her in a general election.

Yet Hillary has made the wrong move. A glance at the recent history of politics shows that confession is not only good for the soul, it’s good politics.

Politicians as varied as Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy have used apologies to rescue their political careers. The key, as they demonstrated, is to apologize in the right way — namely by pleading guilty to a lesser offense and showing contrition for that.

Take Reagan. In the midst of the Iran-Contra scandal of the late ’80s, his poll numbers were dwindling. He stood accused of running an administration that had, perhaps illegally, taken money from a secret arms deal with Iran and diverted it to Nicaraguan contras. When he went on television on March 4, 1987, to respond to a report highly critical of his administration’s behavior he was appropriately apologetic and remorseful.

But Reagan didn’t plead guilty to running a roguish foreign policy; instead, he expressed repentance for failing to supervise his staff adequately:

“[L]et me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration. As angry as I may be about activities undertaken without my knowledge, I am still accountable for those activities. As disappointed as I may be in some who served me, I’m still the one who must answer to the American people for this behavior. And as personally distasteful as I find secret bank accounts and diverted funds — well, as the Navy would say, this happened on my watch.”

In other words, he pleaded guilty to a lesser crime and apologized. And the public eventually forgave him.

Similarly, when Ted Kennedy’s political career faced trouble after the Chappaquiddick incident, in 1969, he, too, made a television address that saved his political career. But he didn’t go on TV and say he was sorry that he was responsible for the death of his car passenger, as his critics wanted him to do. Instead, he pleaded guilty to a lesser crime — leaving the scene of an accident — and showed contrition for that:

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