Mea culpa isn't such a sorry strategy

To get back in race, a struggling politician may apologize

September 01, 2006|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,sun reporter

The voice is one the people of Maryland have heard for generations. The words are a little different.

Comptroller William Donald Schaefer - the former Baltimore City councilman, mayor and Maryland governor known for gruffly ordering underlings to "Do it now" and blurting out sometimes impolitic opinions - is on the radio with a new ad acknowledging some of his recent political missteps.

"I've also said some things I shouldn't," the 84-year-old says in the 60-second spot airing statewide. "But I never meant to offend anyone. And if I did, I apologize."

Schaefer never addresses the specifics of his recent outbursts - rants against immigrants and minorities and sexually tinged behavior toward women. But locked in the most difficult fight of his long political career with a primary less than two weeks away, he is asking voters to overlook his indiscretions.

If it's election season, it seems, it's the season for apologies. Political mea culpas have long been a staple of campaign strategy - from Richard Nixon in his "Checkers speech" of 1952 to Bill Clinton during his impeachment crisis, and beyond.

Schaefer's campaign calls the new ad an attempt to help voters see through what it says has been a "distraction" from the issues in the tight race for comptroller. Political observers see it as a last-ditch effort to win over people who have supported Schaefer in the past but are worried about another four years of public gaffes.

"You get criticized when you don't apologize, and you get second-guessed if you do," said Laslo Boyd, Schaefer's campaign spokesman.

Regret also plays a role in an ad that will hit the airwaves starting today. It is the first of the campaign from former national NAACP head and congressman Kweisi Mfume, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Paul S. Sarbanes. The first words out of Mfume's mouth are, "After my mother died in my arms when I was a teenager, I made some mistakes."

It could be a pre-emptive strike against possible questions that could be raised about his troubled adolescence, which included drug abuse, gang involvement and fathering children out of wedlock, several observers said. Mfume has addressed those issues in the past, and has never lost an election. While opponents have not tried to use his history against him in the current race, the ad could be a way to protect him against attacks in a general election, they said.

"There is nothing fundamentally more appealing than a redeemed sinner, and in politics it's been proven," said Ross K. Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University.

The standard first television spot for a politician is a biographical sketch. Mfume's troubled background doesn't lend itself to that sort of narrative, Baker said.

"In the case of somebody who rose up from a tough neighborhood and had brushes with the law, it's hard to make that into a kind of Brady Bunch-childhood," he said. "It just isn't. So he might as well face it squarely."

It also could serve as a sort of inoculation in case something comes up in the future that voters don't already know about, he said. President Bush, for example, spoke of a misspent youth during his campaign in 2000, so when a decades-old drunken driving charge surfaced just before Election Day, people weren't surprised, Baker said.

The same for Bill Clinton. During the presidential campaign in 1992, he faced accusations of an affair with a woman named Gennifer Flowers. So when his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky came to light, people were less shocked by the notion that Clinton might cheat on his wife, Baker said.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill, an associate law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, said Mfume is sharing his inspirational story, saying, "`Look at my journey.' It also enables him to say, `Look how far I've come.' ... He's turning that story - what would normally be a political liability - into an advantage," Ifill said.

Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said Mfume is "capitalizing on his apparent life of reformation."

"The translation is: `If I've done it, you can do it,'" he said. "This has been so public for so long. People love that speech he gives. It's almost a confessional. This is the age of Oprah. We love those things."

Sabato said he questions the sincerity of Schaefer's apology, considering the many things he has been called on to apologize for in recent years. This year, he was roundly condemned for making suggestive comments to a female aide who had just given him a coffee mug and walked away, commanding her to return and then "Walk again" as he watched. He once called for a registry of AIDS patients, calling them a "danger" who "bring it on themselves."

The use of the word "if" in referring to those whom he might have offended makes it "an apology without punch," Sabato said, something that might not prove effective.

Sabato said the political apology came into vogue in the late 1970s when two sitting governors - Brendan T. Byrne of New Jersey and New York's Hugh Carey - apologized to the public for their poor performances in their first terms and asked for forgiveness, along with second terms. Both were re-elected, Sabato noted.

Boyd, Schaefer's campaign spokesman, said the comptroller's ad is simply an attempt to get past some of the missteps of recent years. The message, Boyd said, is that Schaefer is the same person he has always been, the one elected so many times in the past.

"He has misspoken. He's said things that clearly have caused offense to some people, and that was never his intention," Boyd said. "Some of the controversy is getting in the way of people remembering all the good things that he does."

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