Hillary Clinton Just Can’t Say Sorry

Apologizing is not an act of weakness. It’s an act of strength. And an inability to do it is standing in the way of progress.


Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Here are a few words that usually appear in apologies: sorry, regret, mistake and “I apologize.”

Here are a few words that don’t appear in Hillary Clinton’s statement on why she overruled the advice of her 2008 campaign chair to keep a man accused of sexual harassment on staff: sorry, regret, mistake, and “I apologize.”

For contrast, here’s the apology Clinton gave to ABC over her use of a private email server, months after the server was exposed. “As I look back at it now, even though it was allowed, I should have used two accounts. That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility.”

How is she still so bad at this? Why is she still so bad at this?

Perhaps the answer is because Clinton has spent decades and politics and if there is one thing that politicians are trained to do, it is to never apologize. In politics, apologizing is treated as emasculated weakness. Mitt Romney wrote an entire book titled “No Apology.” Barack Obama was castigated for years for going on, what was labeled, an “apology tour.” Donald Trump has built an entire brand around never admitting he’s ever wrong.

Saying you’re at fault is treated as a form of career suicide even if, fundamentally, it is an act of introspection and fortitude.

Which brings us to Clinton, who seems preternaturally concerned at all times with exhibiting the most superficial kind of “strength.” In 2008, her campaign faith adviser Burns Strider allegedly harassed another campaign employee repeatedly. Clinton’s female campaign chair advised her to fire him. Instead, Clinton reassigned the target of Strider’s harassment and kept Strider on staff, directing him to counseling. Strider would later get fired from another job for doing the same thing he was alleged to have done while working for Clinton.

Clinton initially responded to The New York Times account of the incident with a tepid soft-focus empowerment tweet that didn’t address any of the details of the case. “A story appeared today about something that happened in 2008,”  she tweeted. “I was dismayed when it occurred, but was heartened the young woman came forward, was heard, and had her concerns taken seriously and addressed.” She added, “I called her today to tell her how proud I am of her and to make sure she knows what all women should: we deserve to be heard.”

“Being heard” doesn’t really matter much to women if their bosses don’t listen.

Clinton’s ex-campaign manager Patti Solis-Doyle made the media rounds early this week.

In the process, she did what Clinton should have: expressing regret over how the situation was handled and over her failure to do more.

Clinton, who holds herself out as a champion of women, should have addressed her own shortcomings in this moment as well. For the good of progress for the moment we’re in, she should have either acknowledged that what she did was a mistake or defended her decision. If she believes now that it was a misstep at the time, she should have apologized for making it and explained why she’s contrite now but wasn’t then. If it wasn’t a misstep, she should have defended her actions.

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This was a unique opportunity to reflect on how women in power have occasionally been complicit in enabling men who sexually harass female colleagues. Clinton could have been an example of self-examination, the sort of personal growth necessary for things to actually change. We practically threw her an alley-oop.  

But, instead, she bricked it. In saying she wouldn’t do the same thing now as she did then, but not adding an apology, she did the thing she did at the time of the incident: she made a wishy-washy attempt to have it both ways.

She pointed out that the woman she had reassigned actually went on to have a pretty good experience working for her campaign. She then threw a jab at The New York Times for reinstating Glenn Thrush, who Clinton says stands accused of the same behavior that her former staffer exhibited. This comparison is frustratingly dumb. Thrush’s behavior occurred prior to his employment at The New York Times and didn’t occur in the office. It’s unclear what Clinton was getting at by bringing up Thrush in the first place. Is she implying that the Times should have fired him? Doesn’t that make her look worse? Is she implying that the Times did the right thing? Doesn’t that also make her look like she’s actually defending the opposite actions of what she’s saying she’d now do?

Political champions of #MeToo have insisted that confronting the issue of sexual harassment shouldn’t be political. But whenever it impacts their own house, they tend to shirk from confronting it. On The View this week, Meghan McCain practically reduced Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to stammers when she asked Gillibrand if Clinton’s response to the Times story was appropriate. Clinton had been a mentor to Gillibrand, McCain pointed out. In response, Gillibrand said, “I don’t know all the details. I don’t know if the punishment she chose was the right punishment. But what it does bring us to talk about is this issue of workplace harassment.”

This exchange happened within minutes of of Gillibrand defending her push for Al Franken’s resignation over 12-year-old groping allegations and condemning the RNC for holding onto money donated by Steve Wynn, accused by dozens of women of sexually predatory behavior.

Gillibrand’s moment of doubling back was celebrated on The Federalist, a website that in December ran pieces supporting Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who refused to bow out of the race after the Washington Post reported he romantically pursued teenage girls when he was in his 30’s. In an op-ed about the race, former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen blamed Moore’s shamelessness on former President Bill Clinton, who has been accused of rape by Juanita Broderick, who Donald Trump brought to a 2016 debate in order to intimidate Hillary Clinton after a baseball team’s worth of women accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment.

The bad-faith finger-pointing is enough to make anybody dizzy. When the bad-faith finger pointing is over the sexual harassment, it’s enough to make a person nauseous.

Of course, nuance is necessary in effectively tackling the problem of sexual harassment. But until politicians unstick themselves from the habit of defending their own actions to the death, partisans discussing #MeToo are creating a nightmare ouroboros of bullshit.

A real show of strength in confronting a moral wrong isn’t embracing the role of ideological mercenary. It’s openness to the idea that right and wrong exist apart from party affiliation. It’s the admission that you did the wrong thing, that you’ve learned, that you’ve grown. It’s acknowledgement that your opponent isn’t always wrong. It’s the the use of the word “sorry.”