Being President Means Never Having To Say You're Sorry

A confession of error involves risks presidents usually want to avoid.

April 18, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

IN 1961, a first-term president stood before television cameras and abjectly accepted the blame for a foreign policy catastrophe.

"I'm the responsible officer of the government," John F. Kennedy said somberly after the Bay of Pigs debacle.

His poll numbers immediately shot up 11 points.

Kennedy never uttered the words "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." Nonetheless, Americans, apparently moved by the young president's demonstration of humility and remorse, only warmed to him as a result of his public utterance of failure.

President Bush, by contrast, is pointedly eschewing a similar act of contrition when it comes to American vulnerability to the Sept. 11 attacks or to the faulty information he used to justify war in Iraq.

The issue was in the air because of former U.S. counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke's apology to the families of 9/11 victims. Clarke's one-time boss, however, would not follow suit. Despite persistent prompting by reporters during his news conference last week, Bush made no admission of fault.

"I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could've done it better this way or that way," the president said in answer to one reporter who asked him to name his biggest mistake. "You know, I just - I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet."

Bush is not alone among presidents when it comes to a reluctance to acknowledge errors in judgment or policy. In American history, being president generally means never having to say you're sorry.

"I think presidents of every stripe are loath to say `I'm wrong, I made a mistake,' " says Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Abraham Lincoln did not apologize for Fort Sumter, William McKinley for the Maine or Franklin Roosevelt for Pearl Harbor. Instead, just as President Bush did in his mention of Osama bin Laden on Tuesday night, those presidents blamed attacks on enemies rather than acknowledging policy flaws in their administrations.

"Each of them expresses regret for the casualties, but generally does what Bush does, which is to assert that it is the attackers who are responsible," says Timothy Kneeland, a professor of American political history at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y.

There are clear political reasons not to make such admissions, especially in an election year. "They have to decide if the plus side of expressing public humility is worth the down side of the press playing over and over again the president saying, `I made a mistake,' " says Schaller. "It might not be as often as they played the `Dean Scream,' but it would be close."

Presidential mea culpas are rare, but not unheard of. When President Bill Clinton was finally cornered, he expressed sorrow for his behavior regarding intern Monica Lewinsky. He apologized in Rwanda for America's refusal to become involved during the genocide there. Clinton also issued an official presidential apology for government medical experiments on blacks in Tuskegee, Ala., although those occurred before his birth.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter took full responsibility for the failed rescue mission of hostages in Iran, an admission that further crippled his chances for re-election that year. In 1983, two months after terrorists bombed a U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Ronald Reagan declared to a news conference, "If there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this office and with this president. I accept responsibility for the bad as well as the good."

When Kennedy took the blame after the Bay of Pigs, some in his administration made sure the press knew the plan originated under Eisenhower.

On one occasion early in his administration, Bush did issue a public apology: It was to Japan after an American submarine sank a Japanese fishing boat. In that case, Bush was personally without fault, but like Clinton in the Tuskegee apology, he spoke on behalf of the country. Similarly, but more momentous because it set the nation on a new course, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln apologized for the institution of slavery.

Instead of acknowledging fallibility, presidents tend to alter policy and personnel, which, if not contrition, can at least be interpreted as acknowledgement of a wrong course.

Confession of error, however, involves risks presidents usually want to avoid, not simply because of elections. To say "I was wrong" in a past policy could undercut support for a current one. Could Bush acknowledge that he was mistaken in his reasons for taking the country to war against Iraq and maintain the domestic support he needs in his Iraq policies?

"Apologies must be retrospective, for some event in the past rather than a live, ongoing event," says Michael Traugott, a professor of mass media and politics at University of Michigan. "You can't apologize and then ask for support and a resolute stand by the American people."

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