The Art of the Bad Apology (And a Lesson from Bill Clinton)

(Photo credit: Jon Kneller)

There’s nothing worse than a bad apology. Like the non-apology apology (“I’m sorry if you were offended”), which skirts responsibility and essentially blames the victim for being too sensitive.

Or the increasingly popular “I didn’t know I was being recorded” apology, which is another way of saying, “I was just saying what I was thinking to a friendly audience – had I known it was going to go public I would have certainly phrased it a different way.”

The “Oops, I Was Just Speaking Off the Cuff” Apology

And there’s the “I was speaking off the cuff” apology. The other day a historian named Niall Ferguson was giving a speech and the subject of Keynesian Economics came up. He said that John Maynard Keynes was indifferent to the impact of his policies because he was a) childless and b) gay anyway.

Later, in an “unqualified apology,” Ferguson noted that he had forgotten Keynes’ wife had miscarried and went on to explain:

My disagreements with Keynes’s economic philosophy have never had anything to do with his sexual orientation. It is simply false to suggest, as I did, that his approach to economic policy was inspired by any aspect of his personal life. As those who know me and my work are well aware, I detest all prejudice, sexual or otherwise.

All of this he chalked up to “an off-the-cuff response that was not part of my presentation.”

The Unscripted Moments Reveal Who We Really Are

Does that somehow make it better? He hadn’t planned to slur Keynes’ personal life or sexual orientation – it just somehow came out spontaneously? I think it’s those unscripted moments that reveal who we are and what we really think.

It’s one thing if he were angry. Everyone has had the experience of saying terrible, regrettable things when they’re mad. Or if he had a momentary slip of the tongue – like he let loose with an epithet — that would be forgivable.

But how do you just spontaneously wander down a long path of irrelevant speculation about someone’s sexuality and how it informs their views?

I’d never heard of Niall Ferguson until last week, and I guess I’ll take him at his word that he “detest[s] all prejudice.” But I’m not buying his apology, because it sounds like those were his actual views coming through.

A Character Lesson from Bill Clinton (No, Really)

Years ago, when Bill Clinton was first running for president, he was caught on an open mic* railing against the Rev. Jesse Jackson. He had just been told that Jackson had endorsed another candidate and Clinton was furious.

What was he caught saying? Just this:

“It’s an outrage. It’s a dirty double-crossing back-stabbing thing to do.”

I remember when this happened. I was bracing myself for the worst. But that’s all we got. And I thought at the time, here’s an unfiltered glimpse into the character of this man. It could have gotten really ugly (like, Southern White Man ugly), but it didn’t.

Of course, we later learned more than we ever wanted to know about Clinton’s character from other private moments that went public. But in that case, and in the case of Niall Ferguson, I believe those unguarded statements are often the true measure of what’s in a person’s heart and mind.

Spare Us the Excuses

So save the explanations about “off the cuff” comments, and just apologize for saying a really dumb thing. Adding that you hadn’t planned to be so dumb doesn’t help your case any.

* The only link I could find to what I guess is now ancient history, is this one, but I don’t recommend it, unless you’re willing to sit through an interminable Viagra ad just to see a 12-second video clip of an angry Bill Clinton. Shame on you, ABC.

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