President's excuses don't equal apology

Wednesday, August 19, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

It wasn't much of an apology.

Bill Clinton didn't even say he was sorry.

I didn't expect the president to break down like Jimmy Swaggart and sob uncontrollably for the cameras Monday night.

But when he decided to address the nation, from the White House to our houses, I expected a full apology. I'm still waiting.

As he spoke, I sat in my living room with a cup of tea, waiting to hear how he was going to clean up the mess he has made of things.

- Clinton's apology on Real Video
- Text of speech   - Continuing coverage from Associated Press

I expected him to be contrite and humble. I expected him to admit what he did, ask our forgiveness and promise never to do it again. For me, that's how apologies go. Explanation. Expression of regret. Plea for forgiveness. Resolution never to repeat the offense. I was brought up to believe excuses are not an apology.

"That doesn't cut it," I can remember hearing my dad say when I was a kid and trying to explain my way out of a jam.

You did something wrong. That's why you are apologizing.

Something's missing

I did not hear much regret or embarrassment from the president. He acknowledged he had a "relationship" with Monica Lewinsky that was "not appropriate."

He offered excuses for having "misled" us.

But I never got the feeling he had learned his lesson. He just got caught.

I may be in the minority on this, but I didn't really want all the details on how his "relationship" with Monica Lewinsky was "not appropriate."

Bill and Monica can keep the logistics to themselves and future book deals.

But I did want him to say and act as if he was sorry. In 4 minutes and 8 seconds of talk, he never even said the word sorry.

He took "complete responsibility" for his actions, "both public and private."

He said his public comments created "a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that." Then he told the American people to butt out.

"I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours.

"Even presidents have private lives."

What happened to sorry?

Cynthia Berryman-Fink, professor of communication at the University of Cincinnati, assured me I'm well within my rights to think this way.

"An apology is in the eye of the listener, not in the words of the person giving the apology," she said.

"The listener is one-up in this situation. The person giving the apology is one-down. So, you are right to want to hear the words, "I'm sorry.'

"The listener is the injured party. You have to hear something that's going to make you feel better. You also have to hear some promise that there will be no further wrongdoing."

She emphasized that those words of apology must be delivered in a convincing tone. That tone didn't come through Monday night. As I listened to Bill Clinton, I didn't hear him speaking. I heard the polls talking through him. He was telling me what the American people told the pollsters.

I already knew what the polls said. I wanted to hear Bill Clinton. But instead of truly apologizing for everything he has put us through, he was campaigning with polls in one pocket and his own agenda in the other. He was playing us for suckers one more time. Frankly, I'm tired of being manipulated.

I had great hopes for this speech. The president, I believed, would take the high road with his apology.

Maybe I was expecting too much of Bill Clinton. It must be hard to play it straight when you've lost your bearings.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.