Saturday, August 9, 2008

John Edwards (sort of) Apologizes

John Edwards timed it well. He chose to apologize for his affair with Rielle Hunter during the open ceremony for the Olympic games. Knowing that he could not wait for the Super Bowl he chose to apologize on ABC at a moment when everyone's eyes were glued to NBC. A profile in courage it wasn't.

For weeks and months the mainstream media had been covering for Edwards, leaving the impression that the story was merely tabloid fodder. When that firewall began breaking down Edwards chose the Olympic spectacle to distract people from taking the full measure of his shame.

It is a good thing to apologize when you do wrong. But, as Confucius might have said, the truth lies in the sincerity behind the apology. When you calculate the moment of the apology to garner the least possible attention, sincerity is not the word that leaps to mind.

Apology at its best is a public ritual. The Japanese seem to have perfected it, perhaps as a more civilized version of old Samurai rite of seppuku. In place of the ritual suicide of seppuku a contemporary Japanese businessman who has failed his duties will abandon his office and retire from society for a period of time.

Taking responsibility for failure means paying a very high price. The virtue and courage involved in public apology derives from the fact that the person offering the apology is sparing everyone else the pain of removing him from office.

To be clear, apology involves dereliction of duty more than it involves specifically criminal behavior.

Americans are usually considered to be late-comers to the apology game, but we still do it, sometimes well, and sometimes not so well.

Former Attorney General Janet Reno apologized in 1993 for the loss of life that followed the assault she ordered on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Her voice broke, her face fell, her posture suggested that she truly felt awful for the dozens of people who had been incinerated at Waco. She certainly seemed to be sincere in expressing her feelings.

And yet, if she was really sincere she would have resigned from her office. An apology does not merely mark a bump in the road. Taking responsibility means giving something up... something like your position in a company or a community.

I guess that Reno did not resign because she was taking the fall for someone else who was more fully in charge.

Bill Clinton apologized for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, but he was combative, contentions, defensive, and hostile. No one seriously thought that his was a sincere apology.

Fast forward to John Edwards. Note the obvious: Edwards did not face the cameras alone. He apologized in the course of an interview with ABC's Bob Woodruff. That, in itself, is a sign of insincerity.

Why? Because shame isolates you, stigmatizes you, and makes you a social pariah... to the point where no one will be on speaking terms with you. Apology is a form of auto-excommunication. You cannot offer a sincere apology when communicating face-to-face with another human being.

By definition, shame is a loss of face.

Edwards began his apology by saying, quite properly, that he and he alone is responsible for his actions. But then he performed a deft rhetorical pirouette and blamed it on everyone else.

He blamed it on his fame, his notoriety, his celebrity status, and the adulation he had been receiving from the masses. He had come from nothing; how would it not all go to his head?

Is that intended to excuse his dereliction? Of course, it is. It is a plea for understanding, something that he might well have gotten from a $600 an hour therapist.

When Edwards went on to declare himself to be narcissistic and egotistical, it sounded to me that his explanation and diagnosis had been purchased from a therapist. This is yet another reason to think that therapy is in the business of helping people to avoid taking responsibility.

Is a therapist also responsible for the fact that Edwards bragged that he had told his wife every last detail of his affair?

Think about it. How many wives do you know who want to hear a detailed account of their husbands' sexual dalliances, or, for that matter, of anyone's sexual activities. Wouldn't a wife find such an account to be cruel and unusual punishment. Only a therapist would have the gall to consider that telling it all would be salutary.

Most wives I know would consider it to be grossly disrespectful to tell them everything about an extra-marital affair.

Another strange aspect of the Edwards saga is the fact that his wife Elizabeth, for whom I have nothing but admiration, posted her own commentary on a website called The Daily Kos.

In itself this is a bizarre choice. The Daily Kos is a hyper-partisan website, the kind you would want on your side if you were a politically-active Democrat.

So, when your shame has caused you to renounce your political ambitions-- assuming that it has-- you do not want your wife to post her thoughts and feelings on a partisan site. If she felt the need to speak out for herself, you would want her to send her post to a respectable news outlet.

Put it all together, and it does not spell sincerity. My own cursory glance at the different posted comments suggests that no one really believed that John Edwards told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. If he was not honest, how could he be sincere.

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