In 1982, the band Chicago released how “Hard to say I’m Sorry,” but even harder is knowing how or when to accept an apology. Apologies are part of the process of reconciliation but apologies do not remove responsibility. To put that another way, the acceptance of an apology is not a replacement for accountability, nor do apologies necessitate forgiveness or exoneration.
It is time for a national, bipartisan, conversation on moral responsibility and political consequence. This week it’s Gov. Ralph Northam (D-VA). Last week it was Rep. Steven King (R-IA). In December 2018, it was Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MI) and, before that, it was Roy Moore (RAL). Before that, there was Rep. Elizabeth Esty (CT-D). Also, in 2018, there was Interior Secretary Ryan Zilke’s use of the term konnichiwa when addressing Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) and then, of course, there were the Brett Kavanaugh (R-DC) hearings. Just the year before, Sen. Al Franken resigned after a photograph surfaced of him groping, or pretending to grope, an unconscious woman. Joe Barton (R-TX), John Conyers (D–MI), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Blake Farenthold (R–TX), Trent Franks (R–AZ), Alcee Hastings (D–FL), Ruben Kihuen (D–NV), Eric Massa (D–NY), Pat Meehan (R–PA) …the list goes on and on. Most notably, there is the audio recording of Donald Trump (R-NY) saying that,
“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the p****. You can do anything.”
Before Trump, there were Anthony Weiner (D-NY), Elliott Spitzer (D-NY), and Jim McGreevey (D-NY) who resigned in 2011, 2008, and 2004 respectively. The sexual scandals in the Carolinas, including Sen. Jonathan Edwards (D-NC) and Mark Sanford (R-SC). Other politicians weathered the storm and retired on their own timetable, like David Vitter (R-LA) and Larry Craig (R-ID). And then there was Bill Clinton (D-AK). Gerry Studds (D-MA), Barney Frank (D-MA), Bob Packwood (R-OR), and Dennis Hastert (R-IL)… the list goes on and on…
Of course, there are many important variables. Some of these accusations are sexual in nature, while others are racial in nature. In McGreevey’s case, the accusation was hiding his sexual relationship as well as nepotism, while Elizabeth Esty was accused of covering-up a subordinate’s impropriety. Some of the accusations were alleged to have happened concurrently while the politician was in public office, while others occurred earlier and later became public knowledge.
However, there are also notable patterns. With the exception of Rep. Elizabeth Esty (CT-D) and Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MI), the accused are all men. The other pattern is that there seems to be more of a political consequence for an accusation of sexual misconduct than racial misconduct. This distinction may be related to the underlying problem of political bias. As African-Americans are far more likely to be registered as Democrats, accusations against Republicans are more easily reframed as political criticism and not racial bigotry. This is not dissimilar to the pattern of men being more likely to doubt accusations of women who report sexual misconduct.
While not without controversy, there are models of successful expressions of repentance and subsequent rehabilitation. Though not a politician, perhaps one of the most well-known examples of public rehabilitation is NFL quarterback Michael Vick. After serving jail time related to his dogfighting activities, Vick returned to the NFL and finished his career. John McCain (R-AZ) was a member of the Keating Five accused of poor judgment in the savings and loan crisis, but later became the champion of removing money from politics in the ill-fated McCain-Feingold Act. And, there is Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) who was a member of the KKK, voted against the Civil Rights Act, and is the only legislator to have voted against both of the two African-Americans nominated to the Supreme Court. However, Byrd also repeatedly spoke out against his own previous actions; he hired one of the first African-American Congressional aides in history and helped integrate the United States Capitol Police. In 2004, the NAACP gave Byrd a 100% voting record in regards to the NAACP’s position on the thirty-three Senate bills in the 108th Congress. Heck, now Mark Sanford (R-SC) is a member of Congress. Social and political redemption can happen.
Apologizing, especially after being publicly identified or shamed is not a panacea. Apologies are not a replacement for accountability, nor do apologies necessitate forgiveness or exoneration. As any parent or teacher would probably say, it is better to show you’re sorry than to say you’re sorry. Contrition is also more believable when the transgression is freely admitted and not brought to light by others. The time is now for a national, bipartisan, conversation on moral responsibility and political consequence. We need to shed our political, racial, and sexual lens which we use to filter the accusations against, and apologies by, our public officials.
The problem is identifying an objective standard which delignates between a transgression that is politically forgivable and best left to late night comedians to prosecute in the court of political humor or a transgression that necessitates a political consequence in the court of political opinion. The impediments to identifying that point on the spectrum, from accidental mistake to moral sin, are numerous. With differing moral standards, perhaps partisanship and double-standards regarding gender or race are the best entry points for this national discussion. Ultimately, however, the problem is that the general public will never know what was in the heart of the social offender at the time of the transgression nor the sincerity of conviction at the time of the apology. History has shown that politicians are more likely to refute accusations of impropriety than take ownership of their actions, which has into a political inverse of the Boy Who Cried Wolf.