Contrition as Leadership; Smarter Today Than Yesterday. That's True of the American People on Iraq. It Would Be Good to Learn That It's True of Their Leader as Well

Newsweek, January 8, 2007 | Go to article overview

Contrition as Leadership; Smarter Today Than Yesterday. That's True of the American People on Iraq. It Would Be Good to Learn That It's True of Their Leader as Well


Byline: Anna Quindlen

When word circulated that the president would make a speech to the nation on Iraq in the new year, there was speculation about what he would say. Some suspected he would just repeat boilerplate sentiments about bringing freedom to Iraqis and making America safe from terrorism. Others thought that his remarks would address

a new direction, perhaps a significant increase in the number of troops.

But no one suggested that George W. Bush would utter the words polls indicate so many Americans believe he should: "I made a mistake. I'm sorry."

It's tempting to think that the utter laughability of that notion reflects the personality of a chief executive known more for digging in his heels than holding out his hand. But it may say as much about power, the presidency and even masculinity, American style.

Historians come up pretty empty when asked to recall public admissions of error from the Oval Office. Richard Pious, the Barnard professor who wrote "The American Presidency," cites John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs as the "rare example of a president who took full responsibility." Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose book on Lincoln, "Team of Rivals," was the one President Bush chose as his favorite this year, says that in a letter to Ulysses S. Grant after the fall of Vicksburg, Lincoln admitted that he'd doubted his general's strategy. "I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment," he wrote, "that you were right and I was wrong."

It's difficult to imagine any modern American president expressing error in such an overt fashion, perhaps because instead of a personal communication his admission would become the stuff of pundit second-guessing. And today the apology has also been devalued by a flood of cheap contrition from actors, comedians, athletes and rock stars for everything from drunken driving to bigoted outbursts. Those exercises have more to do with rehabilitation than regret, and it shows. "I'm sorry I offended other people" winds up putting the burden on the distressed rather than the distressor. The classic "mistakes were made" suggests that error is a naturally occurring event, like a sleet storm, rather than a matter of personal failing.

But in terms of presidential admissions, Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown professor who has written a raft of popular books on what we say and why, says it would be a mistake to overlook how deeply ingrained resistance to admitting mistakes is in the American male. "The public persona of authority is hypermasculine," Tannen says.

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