Susan Wise Bauer’s editor reached out to her last year about updating her 2008 book The Art of the Public Grovel, about how politicians apologize when accused of sexual misdeeds. Given the #MeToo movement and claims against Donald Trump, her editor said, a new edition might sell well.
This time, it was Bauer’s turn to say sorry. “I just don’t know what I would write,” Bauer, a historian, recalls saying. “No one really apologizes anymore.”
The modern American political apology, which dates back to President Grover Cleveland seeking forgiveness in 1884 for fathering a child out of wedlock, is in a precarious state as a result of polarization, faster-than-ever news cycles, and a new shamelessness among the political class.
Earlier this month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—facing allegations from several women of sexual harassment—gave only a semi-apology for making some female aides “uncomfortable.” He denied he did anything wrong and argued the public should “wait for the facts.” He’s continued to maintain his innocence, ignoring growing calls from fellow Democrats to resign.
Cuomo is just the latest in a recent string of male political figures, from state lawmakers to members of Congress to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who have hotly denied allegations of sexual harassment, attacked their accusers, or claimed to be the victims of smear campaigns. Even when forced to retire or resign, these men have often declined to make a public apology or any kind of comments on their decision to end their political careers.
It’s part of a broader shamelessness in political life. In February, Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia privately apologized to colleagues in her party for her social media posts claiming that school shootings were faked and supporting the QAnon conspiracy theory. In public, she remained defiant. The same month, Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas said a family trip to Cancun, Mexico, during a massive power outage in his home state was “obviously a mistake,” but blamed the trip on his young daughters and went on to joke about it at a conservative conference.
In the past, voters demanded that politicians who had stumbled own up to it. They often did so in tearful televised speeches, flanked by their wives and pastors. When then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer apologized for hiring escorts in 2008, his wife Silda stood beside him stoically, a moment that inspired the television series The Good Wife.
At times, apologizing has saved careers. In one infamous example from the 1970s, Democratic Congressman Wilbur Mills salvaged a reelection attempt with a public apology to voters and his wife after he was caught drunk driving with a former stripper named Fanne Foxe. (That show of contrition went only so far: Mills decided not to run again after getting up on stage with Foxe at a burlesque show.)
The classic American political apology, in a case of sexual misconduct, draws from Christian confessions of sin. The politicians appear before reporters, often alongside their spouse and a spiritual advisor. They acknowledge that they’ve done wrong, maybe quote some Scripture, and ask for forgiveness. In Bauer’s interpretation, by placing the leader on the same level as their audience—since Christian theology holds that everyone is born a sinner—the ritual is meant to reassure voters who might worry that the politician will take similar advantage of them.
Former President Bill Clinton and former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford both followed the formula when begging for forgiveness in public comments after being caught cheating on their wives. “Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate,” Clinton said in his 1998 speech. “In fact, it was wrong.” Sanford, in a 2009 address acknowledging that he was not actually hiking on the Appalachian Trail but was instead visiting his mistress, apologized at length to his wife and four sons, his staff, his friends, his in-laws, voters, and “people of faith across South Carolina.”
Then came Donald Trump. At a 2015 Christian conservative forum, he was thrown a softball question about whether he had ever asked God for forgiveness, a standard part of Christian theology. “I am not sure I have,” he said, adding that he participates in Holy Communion. “When I drink my little wine—which is about the only wine I drink—and I have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness.”
That disinclination to seek forgiveness showed closer to the 2016 election. When a tape surfaced of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women on Access Hollywood, he dismissed it as “locker-room talk” and pivoted to attacking Hillary Clinton over her husband’s transgressions. The tape was damaging, as was Trump’s response to it, but the scandal was soon eclipsed by Clinton’s own troubles and Trump won.
Many lawmakers took a lesson from Trump’s survival, says historian Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University. “The media cycle is now so fast, there’s a realistic assumption that if you just wait it out, eventually the media will move on to something else,” he says. “What feels like a total frenzy in the moment ends, and all of a sudden it’s yesterday’s news.”
Zelizer says many Democrats have also come to regret moving so quickly in 2017 to force out Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who resigned within weeks of accusations of having groped and kissed a fellow performer on a USO tour years earlier, after other women said he had also behaved inappropriately during photo ops.
Franken didn’t make a traditional public apology, either. When the first allegation came out, he released a short statement giving his “sincerest apologies” while adding that he did not remember the events the same way—and that, in any case, he was a comedian who was just trying to be funny. The statement was so poorly received that Franken was forced to issue a longer one within hours in which he acknowledged that he, like other men, had come to realize that his past conduct was inappropriate, while still maintaining he did not recall the event the same way.
Although nearly all of the public apologies over sex scandals have come from men, there are exceptions. In 2019, former Democratic Representative Katie Hill of California resigned from Congress after nude photos surfaced on a conservative blog and allegations that she had an inappropriate relationship with a staffer. Speaking to a nearly empty chamber on the House floor, Hill apologized repeatedly to family, friends, supporters, volunteers, and “every little girl who looked up to me,” but she did not mention the relationship, focusing instead on the leaked images and attacking “gutter politics” and “a double standard” for women in politics.
Frank Newport, former editor-in-chief of Gallup polling, says the public apology may be a victim of the rise in partisan polarization since the early 2000s. Polls show that many voters now back elected officials from the same party no matter what, Newport says, giving them a base of support that politicians in years past did not have, along with an easy out for any accusations. “The highly polarized environment makes it easier for politicians and public officials to transfer blame,” he says. “Everything is us against them, and that makes it quite easy to attribute causality for almost anything negative to the other side.”
America may be becoming more like the rest of the world. The classic public apology was always uniquely American, Bauer says, and leaders of other countries have rarely had to go through the same ritual. French President Francois Mitterrand unapologetically maintained a second family while in office. In February last year, a candidate for mayor of Paris was forced to stand down over videos and texts he sent to a woman who was not his wife, but he did not apologize and instead dropped out with a fiery attack on his adversaries. One French politician lamented that even the fact he dropped out reflected an “Americanization” of the country’s politics.
Republicans have been more apt than Democrats to refuse to say sorry, and Bauer says Democrats are still more likely than Republicans to issue a traditional apology—as President Joe Biden did after several women said his public touches made them uncomfortable. But that may not last. “I think Cuomo is going to be something of a litmus test,” she says. “If he manages to stay in power without doing a full-on grovel, I think that will be the death of the public apology.”
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