Next time some politician goes before the cameras with his figurative pants down around his metaphoric ankles and says, "I made a mistake," let's form a mob and drag him from the podium. You bring the lanterns, I'll bring the pitchforks.
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is, of course, the latest. Having bought plane tickets, told his staff he would be away hiking the Appalachian Trail, left his wife and kids behind and flown to Argentina to rendezvous with his paramour, he apologized by saying he'd made a mistake.
Before we go any further, let me concede the obvious. Yes, all human beings make mistakes. That's how you know they're human beings.
But surely I'm not the only one to notice how "I made a mistake" has become the go-to explanation for every human hound dog in public office. It's been dragged out by or on behalf of everyone from Jesse Jackson to Kwame Kilpatrick to John Edwards to L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to former Pennsylvania Rep. Don Sherwood to Gary Hart to Eliot Spitzer to Sen. John Ensign to Bill Clinton.
It isn't the cheating I'm complaining about. Nor is it the lying (which is, after all, an integral part of the cheating.) And for our purposes today, we can even ignore the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed moral champions – particularly family-values conservatives like Gov. Sanford – getting busy with women who are not their wives.
No, what incites this diatribe is those four words of putative explanation: "I made a mistake." There is to them a connotation of honest error, unwitting miscalculation, accidental omission and "Oops, my bad." They allow the offender to appear to accept responsibility for his offense while at the same time, minimizing it. He just misjudged. It just happened. He was just careless, inattentive or forgetful. He couldn't help it.
The excuse has never been flimsier than it is in the post-Bill Clinton era. I mean, if I put my hand into a fire because I've never seen fire before and I get burned, that is a mistake. If you see me get burned and then put your hand into the same fire, that's not a mistake. That's an idiotic calculation that somehow, the rules do not apply to you.
So what does it say about the politician who saw Clinton burn his public and political lives to bits, then turns around and does the same thing he did? I'll tell you what it says. It says he's a fool.
And it also says he's a man, though some might argue that's a synonym. But surely you've noticed that the list of cheating hearts in high office is rather, shall we say, testosterone-exclusive. It is not that women are paragons of marital virtue. A 2008 study by the National Science Foundation found that 15 percent of women over 60 admit to having had an affair in their lifetimes, and that the rate of female infidelity is actually growing faster than that of males.
And yet, when's the last time you saw a woman governor saying, "I made a mistake," while her husband stood there looking as if he might toss up his lunch any second? Apparently, your average woman governor-elect has the good sense to tell Sven the Swedish poolboy that she's about to enter the public eye, and their long lunches will have to end. The man governor-elect figures he can get away with it. With the arrogance, recklessness, self-delusion and lack of foresight common to my gender, he figures he can handle it, somehow. Granted, he does this figuring with the part of the body that does not contain the brain, but still, he does it. And then, when it all falls apart, he stands there and insults the intelligence of every human being within earshot.
"I made a mistake?"
Beg pardon, but what he made was a decision.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He chats with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT at Ask Leonard.