It’s one of those golden rules your mom probably hammered into your head from the time you could walk: If you mess up, apologize.
Between alleged dogfighting ringleader/ NFL quarterback Michael Vick (see “Michael Vick Pleads Guilty To Conspiracy” ) and Republican Senator Larry Craig’s purported inappropriate bathroom behavior, we’ve gotten a clinic this week in the delicate art of admitting mistakes.
And at a time when the court of public opinion is almost as powerful as a judge’s chambers when it comes to keeping a career afloat — see recent mea culpas from Isaiah Washington, Paris Hilton (see “Paris Hilton Released From Jail” ), Lindsay Lohan (“Lindsay Lohan Reaches Plea Deal, Will Serve One Day In Jail; ‘I Relapsed,’ Actress Says” ) and Michael Richards — the gulf between ‘fessing up and facing down can be the deciding factor between bouncing back and getting bounced.
By most accounts, despite the heinous nature of his alleged involvement in dogfighting and dog-killing, Vick took the high road on Monday: He went before cameras for the first time since the allegations surfaced earlier this summer and offered a contrite statement in which he took responsibility for his actions. The quarterback, renowned for his on-field scrambling, but not as famous for his public-speaking skills, didn’t duck responsibility, but spoke seemingly from the heart, without notes, about his misdeeds.
“First, I want to apologize for all the things that I’ve done and that I have allowed to happen,” said Vick, who apologized to the NFL’s commissioner for lying about the allegations, as well as to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank. “I was not honest and forthright in our discussions, and, you know, I was ashamed and totally disappointed in myself, to say the least.” Vick also apologized to the young fans he let down. While it probably won’t save him from jail or a suspension by the NFL, his statements went a long way toward making him seem more sympathetic.
“You can’t judge someone’s heart when they’re apologizing,” said Sheila Quinn Simpson, author of the 2004 self-help book “Apology: The Importance of Saying I’m Sorry.” “But when he said it was a very immature thing, I found that very interesting, because he was talking about being a role model to children.
“How we choose our words is a very interesting dynamic in how our apology will be heard and how sincere we come across,” she added. “Even though he didn’t seem to be really admitting his actions in full were terrible, I think people wanted to hear that there was a recognition that he did something wrong.”
Then, on Tuesday, there was Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig, who not only refused to apologize for his alleged attempt to solicit sex in a men’s bathroom stall at the Minneapolis airport in June — an incident that found him subsequently pleading guilty to disorderly conduct — but who used his statement to once again deny recurring allegations that he is gay and to suggest that he would like a do-over on his guilty plea.
“First, please let me apologize to my family, friends, staff and fellow Idahoans for the cloud placed over Idaho,” Craig said, reading from a prepared statement with his wife by his side. “I did nothing wrong at the Minneapolis airport. I regret my decision to plead guilty and the sadness that decision has brought to my wife, family, friends, staff and fellow Idahoans. For that I apologize.”
Craig explained that he “overreacted” to the situation and made a poor decision in pleading guilty to engaging in inappropriate conduct — which he then claimed not to have been involved in. “I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in the hope of making it go away,” he said defiantly, noting that not seeking counsel from lawyers or his family was a bigger mistake, which is what he now “deeply” regrets. He went on to lambaste the Idaho Statesman for “viciously” harassing him and clarified: “I am not gay and never have been.”
In the end, Craig mostly apologized for trying to handle the situation on his own and the headaches it has caused his friends, family and constituents — but not for engaging in actions officials said were suspicious at best in a bathroom that was being staked out for just that kind of behavior.
“It’s not an apology in my view unless you take ownership of it,” said Pamela Eyring, director of the Protocol School of Washington, which teaches professional etiquette and protocol training to businesses, government and industry. “You have to be sincere, admit it and apologize for it and ask for forgiveness.”
Craig’s stubborn stance immediately led to demands for his resignation — including several from prominent Republican members of Congress — and The Associated Press reports that the senator is expected to announce Saturday that he will leave office effective September 30. Simpson said the fact that Craig apologized to his friends and family for keeping a secret from them was a strong statement. “It seemed sincere to me,” she said. “But an apology is more than words, it’s demonstrated by actions. I can say ‘I’m sorry’ and go out and do the same darn thing again.”
And, between Vick’s verbose apology and Craig’s non-apology, it’s hard to know what to make of the strange sight of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who resigned on Monday after months of intense heat calling for his ouster (see “Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Resigns” ).
Gonzales, who many have pegged as the central player in the scandal involving the firing of eight U.S. attorneys and the flap over the government’s warrantless wiretapping program, chose to ignore — or maybe he just couldn’t recall? — his perceived misdeeds. He thanked his family and President Bush for their support, boasted of the good work he’s done and made no reference at all to the reason why he is stepping down. There was no mention of how his perceived stonewalling became such a distraction that many questioned whether it was even possible for him to be effective in the job at all.
A short time later, Bush, who is certainly not known for contrition, went further in the notpology direction and lashed out at detractors of Gonzales, whose “good name was dragged through the mud for political reasons,” he said.
In the end, we had one man who had vehemently professed his innocence admitting guilt and apologizing; another who had admitted guilt vehemently professing his innocence and refusing to apologize; and a third who admitted nothing (except his belief of a job well done) but stepped down from his post anyway. Vick may never play in the NFL again and both Craig and Gonzales seem headed for political exile — but Simpson said anything is possible.
“The true value of an apology is the consequences and actions that follow,” she said. “If the truth comes out and they walk the walk of the apology by changing their behavior, that’s where the truth is. [But] if it’s just PR and they’re still covering up …”