Thursday, April 13, 2017

Regrets, they have many -- April 13, 2017 column


This is the apology spring.

Not since President Bill Clinton went on his mea culpa tour in 1998 to atone for Monica Lewinsky have so many politicians, public figures and corporations done indefensible things for which they’re oh-so-sorry.

“I’m having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness,” Clinton commented at the time.

In the last month or so, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, United CEO Oscar Munoz, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, and Pepsi, among others, have had to make public apologies.

Circumstances varied greatly, but the wave of apologies shows the power of social media to record and broadcast misdeeds and arouse anger. More telling, the need for apologies shows that even in our seemingly anything-goes culture, words and actions still count.

Standards of decency and behavior still exist, and public figures and companies cross some lines at their peril.

Exhibit A is Spicer’s preposterous comment at a press briefing Tuesday that “even Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons” as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad did. Spicer also referred to Nazi death camps as “Holocaust centers.”

Amid calls for him to be fired, Spicer offered a full-throated apology the next morning, calling his remarks “inexcusable and reprehensible.”

“It is really painful to myself to know I did something like that. I made a mistake; there’s no other way to say it,” he told MSNBC’s Greta Van Susteren.

His quick and abject apology for an abysmal choice of words may allow Spicer to move on and save his job.

Personal misbehavior often leads to prolonged apologies by politicians trying to survive, a la Bill Clinton. But nothing focuses the mind like potential jail time.

Bentley’s latest apology and resignation as governor Monday came after he entered a plea deal in which he avoided jail in return for pleading guilty to two misdemeanors involving campaign funds. The deal came as impeachment proceedings were to begin and at the conclusion of a sex scandal involving a top aide.

After videos of a passenger being manhandled on an overbooked United plane went viral, CEO Munoz first backed up the airline and blamed the passenger. Then, he apologized in email and on TV, saying he felt “shame” and promising refunds to those who witnessed the “horrific” incident.

It’s possible Munoz felt shame before lawsuits loomed, before calls for a boycott spread, and before United got hammered in China because the mistreated passenger was Asian. But the tone of the response certainly changed when the PR crisis worsened.  

Apologies have to be done right or they can backfire. In the 2006 Virginia Senate campaign, Sen. George Allen attempted to make amends for using an ethnic slur to an Indian-American student who was videotaping Allen’s rallies for opponent Jim Webb. 

“I do apologize if he’s offended by that,” Allen said of the student. The apology was seen as tepid at best, if not insincere. The incident wasn’t the only flub in Allen’s campaign, and he narrowly lost the election.

Fox’s O’Reilly ran into a buzz saw last month when he made a crack that Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters’ hair looked like a “James Brown wig.” It was hardly the worst thing O’Reilly is accused of saying and doing, but going after a congresswoman’s looks is out of bounds. The comment reverberated on the Internet.

“That was stupid. I apologize,” O’Reilly said.

O’Reilly, whose sponsors deserted him in droves after several women accused him of sexual harassment, has gone on vacation.

And then there’s Pepsi’s ad starring celebrity Kendall Jenner defusing a stand-off at a generic protest by offering a police officer a can of Pepsi. The ad was widely seen as insensitive and trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement.

Pepsi first stood by the ad but pulled it hours later.

“Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize,” said the company, which apologized to Jenner as well.  

Saturday Night Live mocked the ad as tone deaf. A non-controversial ad would never have received the attention, which goes to show confession is good for the soul, and an apology can be good for business.  

©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.



  1. Another insightful and telling survey of the cultural and political landscape, Marsha. Thank you for a consistently fine and important column.

  2. Many thanks, Dan Verner! I really appreciate your comments.