Defense Scretaru Rumsfeld Reports To Congress on Iraq Situation
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images file
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has offered his "deepest apology" to the Iraqis who were "mistreated" by U.S. forces.
By MSNBC contributor
updated 5/18/2004 1:58:11 PM ET 2004-05-18T17:58:11

To those who ever thought that being a politician means never having to say you’re sorry, recent events from Iraq prove otherwise:

  • President Bush: “I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families.”
  • Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “To those Iraqis who were mistreated by member of the U.S. Armed Forces, I offer my deepest apology.”
  • Army Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt: “On behalf of my Army I apologize for what those soldiers did to your citizens.”

The Iraqi prisoner abuse story is a serious matter, and the apologies are profound and heart-felt.  But national apologies are not new.  As a whole, they are a staple of the lexicon of political rhetoric.  This nation has a proud, rich, and humbling tradition of saying we’re sorry in public — covering everything from politics to culture to business.  Presidents, actors, and CEOs alike have walked the trail of tears.  Even bureaucrats like Richard Clarke, who got rave reviews for this theatrical opening remark to his March 24 Congressional testimony on 9/11: “For that failure, I would ask ... for your understanding and your forgiveness."

Clarke’s apology came just days after Martha Stewart offered this on another matter: “I am heartsick about my personal legal situation — and deeply sorry for the pain and difficulties it has caused our employees."

Stewart knows: Apologies are a cost of doing business — for business.  Former United Airlines chairman Jim Goodwin appeared in this television commercial after lousy service plagued the summer of 2000: “I want to apologize personally on behalf of United.”  At the same time, Bridgestone-Firestone was having a tough time with tires, and executive vice president Gary Crigger offered this: “Again, we apologize to our customers, the media and the general public.”

Celebrities, too, make great use of the apology:

  • Hugh Grant on the “Tonight Show”: “I did a bad thing, and there you have it.''  (July 10, 1995).
  • Laura Schlessinger on "poorly chosen" words: “I deeply regret the hurt this situation has caused the gay and lesbian community." (Oct. 20, 2000)
  • Mike Tyson after biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear: “I apologize to the world, to my family, and to the Nevada State Athletic Commission."  (June 1997)
  • Mike Tyson again on his news conference melee with Lennox Lewis: “Things that I said may have offended members of the audience. To these people, I offer my apologies."  (Jan. 23, 2002)
  • Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks: "I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect.” (March 14, 2003)
  • Janet Jackson: “I am really sorry if I offended anyone, that was truly not my intention.” (Feb. 4, 2004)

Of course, who can forget Jimmy Swaggart’s quivering lips after getting photographed with a prostitute:  “I have sinned against you, my Lord, and I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain.” (Feb. 21, 1988)

Monica Lewinsky didn’t seek forgiveness from the Lord.  She aimed one step lower — the First Family.   Here’s her March 3, 1999, interview with Barbara Walters: “I wouldn't dream of asking Chelsea and Mrs. Clinton to forgive me, but I would ask them to know that I am very sorry for what happened and for what they've been through."

The Clinton era was an apology bonanza, led by the Apologizer-in-chief himself, Bill Clinton.  With all his atonement, it was eight years of Yom Kippur — everything but the fasting.  We saw the Oprah-fication of the White House.  First, let’s celebrate President Clinton’s apologies for policies:

  • Clinton on the White House obtaining FBI files of leading Republicans: “I'm sorry that it occurred and I believe we will correct it and I believe the FBI will correct it as well."  (June 12, 1996)
  • Clinton to the surviving participants of the Tuskegee Experiment: “The American people are sorry — for the loss, for the years of hurt. You did nothing wrong, but you were grievously wronged. I apologize and I am sorry that this apology has been so long in coming.”  (May 16, 1997)
  • Clinton apologized “to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the people of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.” (Nov. 22, 1993)
  • Clinton to Greece: “The United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interest, I should say its obligation, to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War. It is important that we acknowledge that." (Nov. 20, 1999)
  • Clinton to Guatemala: United States “support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression ... was wrong." (March 10, 1999)
  • Clinton on slavery: “Going back to the time before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade and we were wrong in that." (March 23, 1998)

And here’s President Clinton on personal matters:

  • “I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.” (August 17, 1998)
  • "I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness. It gets a little easier the more you do it.”  (Aug. 28. 1998)
  • “I have acknowledged that I made a mistake, said that I regretted it, asked to be forgiven.”  (Sept. 2, 1998)
  • “It was indefensible and I'm sorry about it.”  (Sept. 4, 1998)
  • “It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine.”  (Sept. 11, 1998)
  • “I am profoundly sorry for all I have done wrong in words and deeds.”  (Dec. 11, 1998)
  • “I want to say, again, to the American people, how profoundly sorry I am for what I said, and what I did to trigger these events.”  (Feb. 12, 1999)

In that last one, Clinton apologized for what he said.  So have many other politicians.  Including his wife:

  • Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) on a joke she made about a certain legendary Indian leader: "I have admired the work and life of Mahatma Gandhi and have spoken publicly about that many times.  I truly regret if a lame attempt at humor suggested otherwise."   (Jan. 6, 2004)
  • Former Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) after mocking O.J. Simpson trial judge Lance Ito by using a fake Japanese accent: "If I offended anyone, I'm sorry." (April 5, 1995)
  • Trent Lott: “A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."  (Dec. 9, 2002).

Words can fail both ways.  Here’s Richard Nixon on Sept. 8, 1974: “No words can describe the depths of my regret and pain at the anguish my mistakes over Watergate have caused the nation and the presidency.”

Watergate seems so quaint now, with all that talk about money and coverups and constitutional crises.  The remaining legacy must be Deep Throat, because all of our political apologies now involve sex.  And more sex.  And lots more sex.

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I have done things that were not right, which I thought then was playful. But now I recognize I have offended people.  And that those people that I have offended, I want to say to them, I'm deeply sorry about that and I apologize because this is not what I tried to do.” (Oct. 2, 2003)
  • Jesse Jackson, admitting that he fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter with a top aide: "This is no time for evasions, denials or alibis. I fully accept responsibility, and I am truly sorry for my actions."  (Jan. 18, 2001)
  • Gary Hart: “I am ... deeply sorry for causing the events that led to my withdrawal from the race.   I will always bear a responsibility for those actions. I do not blame anyone else and I apologize for those actions."  (Sept. 8, 1987)
  • Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.) on accusations of sexual harassment: "I'm apologizing for the conduct that it was alleged I did."  (Dec. 10, 1992)

Yes, for politicians, love means never having to say you’re sorry.  Sometimes, though, you have to come close.

Howard Mortman is a producer for "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

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