The Perfect "Political Apology" is Anything But...

This classic example of a political apology was extended by John Kerry, who was 'forced' to apologize after being accused (primarily by Republicans) of insulting the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces.

He claims to have been trying to make a joke about George Bush's intelligence, but he screwed up.

You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.John Kerry

He then went on to offer the following political apology:

I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member or American who was offended... As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: My poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and [was] never intended to refer to any troop...John Kerry

Later in the week, on MSNBC's Don Imus radio show, he went further by stating,

I left out one word. I left out the word 'us.' They got 'us' stuck. Instead of that, I said, 'They got stuck,' and they're taking advantage of it.John Kerry

Although John Kerry certainly acknowledged his mistake, he failed to take responsibility for offending so many people. As is often the case with political figures worried about appearing weak, fallible, insensitive or just plain wrong Kerry's excuse ended up insulting the very people who expected (and deserved) the apology.

He blamed these same service members for not being bright enough to understand the joke, and expressed regret that people didn't 'get' his sense of humor. Why should he be held responsible for others being so slow, he reasoned?

Obviously the demands for Kerry's apology were politically motivated, and we suspect there were just as many people who believed John Kerry had no reason to say sorry or ask for forgiveness. The problem, of course, is that most of these people were probably Democrats who 'understood' Kerry's 'obvious' and 'brilliant' insult to George Bush.

Unfortunately, politicians and their advisers have become so adept at parsing and re-framing the 'political sound bite' that they almost never deliver a good political apology. They're so convinced of their own importance and so worried about the political damage following a 'perfect' apology that they often ignore the political costs of a partial apology.

Weak, politically motivated apologies or a political apology typically goes through stages—if the 20 percent version of the partial apology doesn't work then it's usually followed by the 50 percent version, and then the 80 percent version if that fails. Each time officials are forced to add more ingredients of the perfect apology their foes declare victory.

But in most cases, if the original apology included all (100%) of the ingredients we outline throughout the site, the results would almost always be less painful and less costly.

Unfortunately, the best apologies are always the last ones to be issued. What is so fascinating about the rise in the number of public apologies over the last few years is that although public figures clearly understand their importance few really know how to do it well.