Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Clinton’s “apology”

Last week when asked about why she was continuing her campaign for president that is millions of dollars in debt and unable to alter the insurmountable lead in delegates by Senator Barack Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton cited Bobby Kennedy’s assassination in June of 1968 following the California primary as an example of why she should continue running. Presumably her point was that even Kennedy was running as late as June although this conveniently overlooked the facts that Kennedy had been running for president for only a little over two months, the 1968 primary/caucus calendar didn’t even begin until mid-March and that a significant number of delegates were chosen outside that primary/caucus system. What came across was that she was waiting for something to happen to Senator Obama with the expectation Democrats would then rally around her.

When a candidate can’t give a coherent answer as to why she is running it’s probably time for the campaign to close shop. However, if losing the race for delegates and running up huge debts are not reason enough to suspend the campaign and endorse the winner, then certainly being unable to explain why she is continuing to run without using just an awful example isn’t going to slow her down either.

Well, what about a very appropriate unconditional apology? The problem is that’s not her style because it might come across as weak. She backed off the RFK assassination comment in a rather unsatisfactory way and that says a lot about her character.

Michael Tomasky has these thoughts on why she can’t bring herself to say she’s sorry – genuinely and unconditionally – in today’s Guardian:

OK. No one actually believes that Hillary Clinton was wishing an assassination attempt on Barack Obama. She obviously would not do that and is surely aware that, because he's a black man who is getting close to the presidency of the United States, he receives such threats on a regular basis (there's a reason he's had Secret Service protection since last summer, earlier than any other candidate in his position in recent history).

She was apparently trying to say that the 1968 race lasted until June, that's all. But using the assassination of Bobby Kennedy to make the point is a pretty strange way to do it. It's akin to noting that funny things can happen in Japan in August because after all that's when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit with atom bombs.

So it was weird, but unintentional. Perhaps reflective of something rattling around somewhere in her subconscious but we've all said stupid things that we didn't really mean. The important part - the actual test of character, we might say - is what happens after we say such things.

Clinton tendered two apologies, one verbal, issued in what appears to be some sort of grocery store, and one written, in the New York Daily News on Sunday. Both were non-apology apologies. She suggested in the verbal one that perhaps she'd slipped because Ted Kennedy has been much on her mind since his cancer diagnosis - even though she said the same about Bobby K back on March 6 to Time magazine. (If she's that clairvoyant, hey, maybe she should be president.)

The written apology, presumably constructed with more care, was even worse. In the Daily News, the whole controversy happened because "some took my comments entirely out of context and interpreted them to mean something different - and completely unthinkable." So it's other people's fault.

As I stated above, we've all said things like this. And what, ideally, do we do afterwards? We say we're really, really sorry. We bare ourselves to the party we offended (and by the way, as my pal Ed Tallman noted, in neither apology did Clinton acknowledge that what she said might have caused an ounce of concern to the Obama family; only to the Kennedys). We speak to them personally, we look them in the eye, we say we don't know why those words came out of our mouths and we ask their forgiveness.

It's pretty simple. So here's the question. Why was it so impossible for Clinton to say: "You know, I screwed up. I really shouldn't have said that, and I'm sorry I did. I don't know why it came out that way, but it was wrong of me, and I'm really, really sorry." No "if I offended" anyone. No "I was misinterpreted". Just what we normal humans call a sincere apology.

I have watched Hillary Clinton in many, many situations over the years. She never shows weakness. She never admits a mistake. Actually, this year, she admitted one; she
admitted misremembering the Bosnia sniper-fire episode. She even added: "It proves I'm human."

I was shocked when she said this, because she had never admitted a mistake publicly in her life until then. She can acknowledge misjudgements and say she'd do it differently today (healthcare, the Iraq war resolution vote), but she just can't say: "You know, I screwed up big time."

True, most politicians don't, but many do. Barack Obama is somewhere in the middle on this scale. He was pretty forthcoming in both books about certain failings of his - in sharp contrast to her tight and tense book, which was a perfect manifestation of what I'm talking about - but it took him quite a while this year to talk honestly with regard to Rev Wright. John McCain is of course the king of the mea culpa. He admits mistakes he didn't even make.

But Clinton just can't show weakness. It must always be strength. And, of course, in thinking she's showing strength, she actually looks weak. Real strength, as we all know from personal experience, comes in admitting the mistake.

I am sorry for her that she was raised this way. At the same time, self-aware people, by the time they're 60, hopefully understand that everything their parents told them to do wasn't right. This need to seem invulnerable and in control and above error has harmed her throughout her career. And it's harming her now. A genuine apology that struck the right notes might have led to feelings of unity and helped her get the vice-presidential nod. Ah well. Maybe those of us who live outside New York will only have to worry about all things Hillary for another week or two.
Yes, another week or two.

You can read the entire piece here where Tomasky explores the influence of her father on her character.

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