At a town hall in March, Hillary Clinton tried to bolster her environmental credentials by claiming “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” On Monday, an unemployed coal miner in West Virginia confronted her about the callousness of her comments. “I just want to know how you can say you’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of, out of jobs, and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend, because those people out there don’t see you as a friend,” he said.
It was an entirely fair question. But Clinton’s response was incredibly disingenuous:
I don’t know how to explain it other than what I said was totally out of context from what I meant, because I’ve been talking about helping coal country for a very long time … it was a misstatement, because what I was saying is that the way things are going now, we will continue to lose jobs. I didn’t mean that we were going to do it, what I said was, that is going to happen unless we take action to try to and help and prevent it. … I do feel a little bit sad and sorry that I gave folks the reason or the excuse to be upset with me.
Let’s Put This to the Test
I would have to draw some sort of flow chart to make sense of all the contradictions here, but in sum, this in no way resembles how honest people talk. This completely fails what I call “The Spousal Test for Political Honesty.” That is, whenever a politician has to explain a screw-up, I try to imagine if my wife would buy the same logic.
So let’s imagine how Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric above would go over in the typical domestic situation:
Mrs. Hemingway: Uh, Mark? How come you didn’t fix the garbage disposal like you said you would?
Me: I don’t know how to explain the fact I haven’t fixed the garbage disposal, other than what I said was totally out of context from what I meant, because I’ve been talking about fixing the garbage disposal for a very long time. It was a misstatement, because what I was saying is that the way things are going now, we will continue to have a broken garbage disposal. I didn’t mean that I was going to fix it, what I said was, that it’s not going to get fixed unless we take action to try to and help and fix it. But if it makes you feel better, I do feel a little bit sad and sorry that I gave you an excuse to be upset with me. Now calm down and make me a sammich.
As you might imagine, such a conversation with my wife wouldn’t go over well, to put it mildly. But before I bash Hillary Clinton’s storied mendacity some more, let me climb down from my altitudinous steed and freely confess I know this because, as a child of postmodern America, I’ve made my share of passive-aggressive non-apology-apologies.
Hillary Clinton Didn’t at All Apologize
But after nearly 10 years of marriage, I make a lot less of them than I used to. (Suffice to say, I hope learning from these mistakes means I have a very different kind of marriage than the Clintons.) If marriage has taught me one thing, it’s that if you’ve genuinely offended someone, apologizing right away is the way to go.
Why? Well, as a general rule it’s a lot easier to be forgiven when you admit you were wrong. You’re also unlikely to correct your own behavior unless you actually come to terms with the fact it was wrong and publicly admit as much to the person you’ve wronged. As Oscar Hammerstein put it, “there’s nothing so bad for a woman as a man who thinks he’s good.” (For what it’s worth, that quote comes from Roger L. Simon’s laudable and forthcoming new book “I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Undermining Our Republic If It Hasn’t Already.”)
Nonetheless, NBC, CBS, the New York Daily News, Time and others are all running with headlines that Hillary Clinton “apologized” for her comments. However, this is precisely the kind of deplorable, yes, Clinton-esque hedging done precisely with an eye toward selfishly pacifying your immediate critics without being held accountable for that same wrongdoing later.
Now ask yourself, what is the fundamental purpose of a meaningful apology? It’s to build trust. Needlessly elaborate verbal trainwrecks designed to dodge accountability don’t exactly foster trust between voters and politicians. (The other presidential frontrunner is on record saying “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness?” so, in fairness, the problem is bipartisan.) The fact that much of the media thinks this constitutes an apology helps explain why the fourth estate is further sowing distrust.
They’re constantly vacillating between “what about your gaffes?” gotcha journalism and credulously discounting self-interested motivations by preferred politicians. On an individual level, the fact that this I’m-sorry-if-I-offended-you non-admission of wrongdoing has become generally acceptable goes a long way toward explaining why it seems society is falling apart at the seams.
Change Starts With an Apology
Major transgressions might necessitate a different response and more accountability—a discussion of Hillary Clinton’s inability to tell the truth about her email server is quite another matter—but what’s the harm in Clinton straightforwardly acknowledging the insensitivity of a few thoughtless words? I yield to no one in my belief that the Clintons are irredeemably corrupt and dishonest, and even I don’t think Hillary Clinton is privately cackling with glee about the suffering of unemployed coal miners in Appalachia.
I know it’s a quaint notion, but I operate on this weird belief that human beings make a lot of mistakes, and that makes it hard to trust anyone, let alone people we have collectively entrusted with governing responsibilities who don’t end up apologizing from time to time. It would be nice if we had a major politician for once who embraced mistakes as opportunities to build trust, and we had a political culture that responded to such moral leadership by actually forgiving the kind of mistakes that are, well, entirely forgivable.
Of course, we’re staring down the barrel of a Clinton-Trump election coming on the heels of eight years of “hope and change,” so that vision seems like little more than an altruistic political fantasy. But real change starts with by owning up to our own failures, including our own failure to hold our leaders accountable.
If you’ll excuse me, I have a garbage disposal to fix.