The Art of ‘I’m Sorry’ Is on Display

Posted June 23, 2010 at 6:27pm

Apologizing is en vogue in Washington, D.C., these days. But whether it’s a widely respected military leader or a conservative GOP lawmaker under fire over controversial statements, “I’m sorry” doesn’t always work out in the end.

In the case of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who made scathing remarks about administration officials in an upcoming Rolling Stone article, his apology wasn’t enough. After being summoned to a meeting with President Barack Obama on Wednesday to explain the comments he and his staff made — which included calling National Security Adviser James Jones a “clown” and Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke “a wounded animal” — the four-star general was finished as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

BP CEO Tony Hayward had virtually nobody on his side when he told Congress earlier this month that he was sorry for the Gulf oil spill caused by his company. But whatever weight his apology carried was erased when, days later, Hayward was photographed at a glitzy yacht race in England as oil continued spewing into the Gulf. Shortly after, he was removed from his post as BP’s point man on the cleanup.

By contrast, House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton escaped retribution after giving two apologies. The Texas Republican initially apologized to Hayward for facing White House pressure to create a $20 billion fund for victims of the oil spill; then, after drawing fire on all sides over his apparent allegiance to Big Oil over Gulf Coast residents, Barton apologized again.

House GOP leaders were threatening to take away Barton’s ranking role on the committee over the dust-up. But he followed their directive and handed out scores more apologies to Gulf Coast lawmakers, the Energy panel and his entire Conference — and walked away with his job intact.

“By and large, Members wanted to get back to focusing on the issue of plugging the hole and cleaning up the spill, and this coincided with what appeared to be a sincere and heartfelt apology by Barton to the Conference,” one House GOP source said.

“With a few notable exceptions, people were generally satisfied that the message had been delivered adequately to Barton and his staff that further gaffes at the expense of the team will not be tolerated,” the source said.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Texas) said Barton’s willingness to take back his first apology to BP was enough to keep his seat on the powerful committee.

“Mr. Barton said he apologized and took back those words,” Sessions said. “Why would you attack somebody for withdrawing their comments?”

Rep. Joe Wilson, who made national headlines with his own apologies after shouting “You lie!” at Obama last year during a nationally televised address, agreed that Barton’s sincerity got him through at the end of the day.

“I know he was sincere. His statements … were largely taken out of context. But he should have understood the context, I will tell you that,” the South Carolina Republican said. “Obviously, he does now. To give any indication of the defense of BP is truly inappropriate. The only people that should be defending BP is BP.”

Wilson said the secret to a good apology is to direct it toward the person you have wronged and to avoid “apology tours.”

“You have to be sincere, and it can’t be requested by other people, political advisers, pollsters,” he said. “It can’t be constant or repetitious.”

Still, Wilson said Barton needed to give several apologies because in his case, there was not one obvious person he had wronged.

“For me it was pretty simple, I think,” Wilson added.

But Barton himself has prompted questions about the sincerity of his apology. Minutes after apologizing to the House Republican Conference for his comments, Barton linked on Twitter to an article with the headline, “Joe Barton Was Right.” The tweet was taken down soon after, but it was up long enough for Democrats to tag it and pounce on Barton for his apparent un-apology.

“Joe Barton defiantly saying he was right and Republicans keeping him in a position to oversee oil companies says everything you need to know about the sincerity of Republican protestations about the behavior of BP and the oil industry. This is how they truly feel,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said.

Rep. Alan Grayson, who angered conservatives with his tongue-in-cheek apologies during the health care debate, said sincerity has little to do with the success of an apology.

“It’s not enough just to be sincere,” the Florida Democrat said. “You have to actually say, ‘I’m sorry and it will never happen again.’ And you have to mean it.”

Grayson vaulted into the national spotlight last year when Republicans demanded he apologize to the House after declaring in a floor speech that the GOP health care plan for the sick was to “die quickly.” He later returned to the floor and apologized “to the dead” instead of to Republicans.

“I apologized to the people who deserved to hear it,” he said.

Ultimately, a good apology is defined by a sense of “learning your lesson,” Grayson added. And as such, McChrystal’s apology would not be successful, he said.

McChrystal “has made a whole career out of insubordination,” Grayson charged. “A leopard never changes its spots.”