Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 23, 2020
We have forgotten how to say “I’m sorry” — and mean it — a condition that makes me feel, well, sorry for all of us.
Public life is giving us more examples every day, from Donald Trump’s seeming inability to see anything he does as wrong on any level, to Mike Bloomberg’s half-hearted, half-believed general apology at the debate this week for workplace abuse allegations and years of racial profiled stop-and-frisks in New York.
Bloomberg took a first step to go further to address three workplace complaints that had named him, saying that he would lift nondisclosure agreements if the women filers wanted to speak. But that is three of a reported large number of complaints at the Bloomberg Company, hardly acknowledgment of a wider problem.
At a time when there is more and more blame — and legitimate reason for blame — rising, our formal ways of acknowledging wrongdoing and promising to make amends is suffering greatly.
Instead, we have presidential leadership busily and aggressively pushing away any notion of wrongdoing, spending all waking hours in pursuit of erasing any evidence or suggestion that there ever were facts that pointed to bad behavior.
Of course, the idea of forgiveness is failing too.
The sentencing of Roger Stone, longtime Republican Party trickster and Trump associate, is providing fresh evidence of public campaigning by his team and the president’s not to acknowledge a jury finding of guilt on seven charges of bad election behavior, but to expect that Donald Trump will simply bring out his magic pardon eraser and make it all go away.
Yes, it is already unconscionable and unconstitutional that this president sees it appropriate role to stick his nose into single criminal cases before the Justice Department and the courts in pursuit of his vengeance efforts against his enemies, against those people who would question his actions. Even Atty. Gen. William P. Barr, who seems to serve ever more directly as Trump’s toady, has warned Trump about interfering in open criminal matters.
But in tweeting about the need to water down Stone’s sentencing as the judge was considering it, in considering a pardon to dismiss jury finding of multi-count violation of federal law, Trump puts his own personal and political needs above enforcement of law. Whatever he does, Trump will not be apologetic about attempts to undercut the law, the finding of a jury, the processes of justice in this country.
For Stone, who seemingly threatened the judge during the trial with a tweet showing the judge in crosshairs, it was easier to demand a new trial than to humble himself with an apology to the court before sentencing to 40 months in prison. It remains somehow better for Stone and Trump to blame the jury foreperson who had written a tweet months before the trial that showed she was not a Trump fan than it was to seek forgiveness from the court — by the way, never acknowledging that his own legal team could have challenged the juror at the outset of this trial.
In pardoning a passel of well-connected friends and white-collar criminals this week, Trump apparently ignored any kind of Justice Department review of commutation requests that usually start with the question of remorse. No, when former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich emerged from eight years of prison for trying to sell Barack Obama’s former Senate seat, both Blagojevich and Trump insisted that there had been no crime in the first place.
I’m bothered again by the lack of judgment in recognizing what constitutes a crime, of course, but almost more so by the failure to say Sorry.
Trump has been unable to say he is sorry for anything that led to his impeachment, just as he has been insistent that he never paid off women for extramarital sex, for allegations of sexual assault, for fraudulent business practices, for policies that pollute our air and water and that grab children from the arms of migrant parents. It is all of a piece, for him; personal acts, business decisions, abuse of governmental office is all within bounds if the actions and effects advance his personal goals.
In a sense, it is why the Bloomberg debate presentations were so troubling — not because he was a stiff, aloof, condescending figure to the other candidates on stage. No, the problem was whether he knew how to be humble, to acknowledge wrongdoings towards women and black New Yorkers, or non-doing in the case of his taxes, and to make public amends in a manner that would prove believable.
I’m troubled that Bernie Sanders can’t effectively acknowledge and apologize for brutish political behavior by his staff (though now perhaps he can blame interfering Russians) , or that Sen. Amy Klobuchar can’t really tell her staff she is sorry for throwing things in her office, Mayor Pete for trying to ridicule his opponents in supercilious ways, or, famously, that Joe Biden can’t just see what seems obvious to everyone else, that his son, Hunter, had no business signing on to a Ukrainian energy company no-show board job while he was vice president and working on Ukrainian policy.
I used to tell one of my bosses that I started each day by apologizing prospectively for anything that might go wrong that day, that perhaps it would be easier if he upfront had someone to blame. I’m sure that you, like me, hear stories all day long about marriages and relationships headed for problems mostly because Party 1 could not properly make Party 2 know that the offered apology was heartfelt, and that amends were under way.
Indeed, there is another side to apology besides saying the words.
The outstanding question is whether the speaker has learned anything along the way about how abusive the original act had been, about how people got hurt, about how all parties could be assured that the underlying circumstance could be restructured to avoid a repeat. And it is about forgiveness rather than revenge.
But do you think that Trump spent a nanosecond feeling sorry about firing his director of national intelligence this week for doing his job by updating Congress about continuing Russian influence attempts in elections on Trump’s behalf? No, of course not.
I do want a president who can acknowledge a mistake or a misjudgment, someone sufficiently self-aware so as to make adjustments to the situation at hand. It starts with principle, an intelligence that is realistic about the circumstances, and the ability to speak from the heart.
We know that is not Trump, and we fear that we’re not finding enough of it among the Democrats.
I’m sorry about that.