Commentary: Rep. Massa may be the new master of the apology

U.S. Rep. Eric Massa is the new king of the confessors. Say what you will about him, the man knows how to make a public apology.

The public mea culpa has fallen on hard times since the days when Roman officers made amends by falling on their swords — literally. That phrase since has been used to describe an act of public atonement, such as a resignation, but hardly anyone does that anymore, either.

The modern history of prominent public apologies, especially among U.S. politicians, has been disappointing. The modern political show of public repentance has taken many forms, all of which amount to something far less than full contrition.

Former President Richard Nixon, for example, never could bring himself to fully confess his sins. His infamous "Checkers Speech," where he sought to explain away a slush fund maintained for him by supporters, actually was sleight of hand designed to look like an apology. Sure, he told listeners in a televised speech, someone gave me a free puppy (Checkers), but you don't expect me to give it back, do you?

It worked, but Nixon eventually got into a pickle he couldn't explain away with a poignant puppy speech. The phrase, "it wasn't the scandal, it was the coverup that got him," was coined for Nixon, who might have saved his presidency with an early confession.

Instead, Nixon relied on what he called a "limited hangout." That can be roughly translated as a semi-confession offering a tidbit of previously hidden information to give the impression of coming clean.

The following transcript, from a taped White House conversation in 1973, is illustrative. The conversation involved the president's men, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell and H.R. Haldeman:

President: You think, you think we want to, want to go this route now? And the — let it hang out, so to speak?

Dean: Well, it's, it isn't really that —

Haldeman: It's a limited hangout.

Dean: It's a limited hangout.

Ehrlichman: It's a modified limited hangout.

President: Well, it's only the question of the thing hanging out publicly or privately.

President Ronald Reagan never had as much reason to confess as Nixon. But when he did offer a public apology, he resorted to a tactic that has become popular among politicians, preachers, athletes and many others ever since: The "I take full responsibility" ploy.

Reagan finally found it necessary to go on TV to apologize for the Iran-Contra Affair, in which guns were sold to Iran as ransom for hostages held by militants there, and money from the arms sales was sent to anti-communist contra forces in Nicaragua. In the 1987 speech, Reagan told Americans that he took full responsibility for any and all actions that occurred during these swaps — including those he was unaware of.

Of course, there were no repercussions for taking responsibility for the mess. No one fell on a sword.

President Bill Clinton had ample opportunities to apologize to the American people. But he is, perhaps, the world's greatest practitioner of the art of using weasel words instead of actually apologizing.

Bill Clinton "did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky!" Which was a bald -faced lie. Unless, of course, your definition of "sex" is not the same as his.

Only Clinton could have said this, which he did before a grand jury in 1998 regarding his relationship with Lewinsky: "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is. If the — if he — if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement ... Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

Eric Massa is no Bill Clinton. The New York Democrat will be nothing more than a fleeting memory a few months from now. But he knows how to make a public apology.

Massa has confessed to, among other things, engaging in “tickle fights” with staff members.

"Now they're saying I groped a male staffer. Yeah, I did! Not only did I grope him, I tickled him until he couldn't breathe and then four guys jumped on top of me. It was my 50th birthday; it was kill the old guy."

He also confessed to inappropriate language and groping when he was in the Navy. He, in fact, made the Navy sound a lot like the Village People envisioned it in their song.

But consider this: Massa resigned his seat in Congress.

"I wasn't forced out. I forced myself out. I failed. I didn't live up to my own codes. I own this."

He also said this: "I want to make something perfectly clear. My difficulties are of my own making. Period."

In most respects, Massa is no role model we would want our children to emulate. Nonetheless, in Washington, it's not often we are treated to a totally unlimited hangout.


James Werrell is the Rock Hill Herald's opinion page editor. He can be reached at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.