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The Unpology: How Republicans Never Say They're Sorry

August 18, 2007

In 1997, Seinfeld introduced Americans to the "unvitation." The unvitation enables the cynical person to seemingly satisfy the demands of social etiquette by extending an invitation to an event or gathering which they know the recipient will - or must - reject.
As we fast forward to 2007, Americans are witnessing Republicans perfect a similar act of social hypocrisy and cynicism: the Unpology. Facing recriminations for ethical failings, racist behavior, sexist statements or outright criminality, this new generation of Republican wrong-doers delivers the facade of apology by uttering obligatory words of remorse devoid of actual regret, contrition - or even an admission of guilt.
As AmericaBlog notes this morning, Rep. Bill Sali (R-ID) is just the latest Republican to offer Americans an unpology that is neither heartfelt nor sincere. On August 8th, Sali in an interview with the Christian American Family News Network joined CNN's Glenn Beck in attacking Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress.

"We have not only a Hindu prayer being offered in the Senate, we have a Muslim member of the House of Representatives now, Keith Ellison from Minnesota. Those are changes - and they are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers."

Despite the Constitution's clear ban on religious tests for office, Sali refused to back down on his claim that the Founding Fathers fought for "principles found in Scripture" and that "the dangerous part is straying from these principles." But August 16th, even Sali recognized that propriety demanded the form, if not the actual content of, an apology to Ellison:

"I think that Keith deserves a call from me - not necessarily because of what's in my heart or in my mind, but because of how it's been portrayed."

We learned this morning that the Sali unpology was completed with a private email to Ellison. As Sali spokesman Wayne Hoffman put it, "He said that he wanted to make sure that Congressman Ellison understood that he meant no harm or disrespect."
Sali's is just the latest example of a specific type of faux Republican remorse, the Conditional Unpology. That is, the conservative in question is not objectively sorry per se, but wishes to expresses a patina of regret only to "those who may have been offended." Here, contrition is contingent on the perception of offense in the eye of the beholder.
The Conditional Unpology has a rich tradition in the recent history of Republican cynicism. Virginia Senator George Allen's "macaca moment" provides just one classic example. Refusing to acknowledge the racist baggage of his macaca comment, Allen delivered this textbook unpology:

"Yesterday, I apologized to anyone who may have [been] offended by the misinterpretation of my remarks. That was certainly not my intent...I never want to embarrass or demean anyone and I apologize if my comments offended this young man."

(It is worth noting that President Bush often relies on a cousin of the conditional unpology, the conditional eulogy. Bush noted the 2002 death of Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone by offering the conditional comfort, "May the good Lord bless those who grieve.")
Allen's pitfall suggests another relative of the conditional archetype is the Inadvertent Unpology. In this scenario, the guilty Republican claims he merely misspoke, accidentally used the wrong words or was unaware of the hidden meanings of terms he casually bandied about. Consider for example, the serial "tar baby" racist slurs of Tony Snow, Mitt Romney and John McCain. Snow claimed his critics were "unfamiliar with the pathways of American culture," while Romney spokesman Eric Ferhnstrom insisted his man was "unaware that some people find the term objectionable and he's sorry if anyone's offended." (The closest President Bush came to acknowledging error also hinged on a mere linguistic stumble: "Using bad language like, you know, 'bring them on' was a mistake.")
A third class of feigned GOP admissions of guilt is the Transformational Unpology. Here, the miscreant claims that the passage of time, tectonic shifts in social norms or some profound personal experience has so altered the wrong-doer as to make him now incapable of repeating the offense. Take for example the case of Trent Lott (R-MS). In the wake of his disastrous 2002 praise for legendary segregationist Strom Thurmond, Lott tried (unsuccessfully) to keep his Senate Majority Leader post by using the "that was then, this is now" approach on BET. "I'm part of the region and the history that has not always done what it was supposed to do," Lott said, adding "I'm now trying to find a way to deal with the understandable hurt that I have caused." Unfortunately for Lott, the "times are a-changin'" defense didn't work so well for someone from the land where the "old times there are not forgotten."
Another unique form of Republican pseudo-contrition is the Rehabitual Unpology. Ironically borrowed from Hollywood, this evasion claims that disease, circumstance or abuse beyond his control led the Republican in question to his sin. Mark Foley (R-FL), whose predilection for young, male Congressional pages helped sink the GOP during the 2006 mid-term elections, attributed his crimes to his own experiences with clergy sex abuse and entered an alcohol rehabilitation center. Following Foley into rehab was disgraced Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, convicted for his role in the Abramoff affair. For these and a host of other Republicans, the only real regrets were that the devil made them do it - and that they got caught.
The Scooter Libby affair introduced another conservative accountability avoidance strategy into the vernacular: the Unpology by Proxy. Here, the felon himself never apologizes for his crimes at all, instead deploying an army of surrogates (and even a legal defense fund) to plead that his only offense was his excessive dedication to his country. Dick Cheney joined President Bush, Fred Thompson and virtually the entire right-wing chattering class in defending Libby. Cheney like Bush said he was "saddened" for his Libby and his family, and considered him "a man of the highest intellect, judgment and personal integrity -- a man fully committed to protecting the vital security interests of the United States." Brandishing talking points like "no underlying crime" and the "criminalization of politics," the unpology-by-proxy surrogates ultimately portray the victimizer as the victim.
Which brings us to the final group of GOP unpologists, those who utterly refuse to admit guilt, instead offering the Unpology of Denial. Virginia Republican Virgil Goode, for example, never apologized for his earlier anti-Muslim slurs addressed to Keith Ellison. Indicted former House Majority Leader Tom Delay is the expert practitioner of this specialty. Rejecting admonishments from the House Ethics Committee and later indictment in Texas, The Hammer helped pioneer the criminalization of politics defense. (Delay apparently also believes it helps to claim that God is speaking to him.) Of course, the leading Republican denier is President George W. Bush. Given an opportunity to apologize for his myriad mistakes during an April 13, 2004 press conference, President Bush could think of none. "I'm sure something will pop into my head here," Bush said, "maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
Given that conservative dissemblers such as Trent Lott and George Allen ultimately failed to ward off defeat, it's only natural to ask: why do Republicans persist in these Potemkin apologies? It's not just because they believe political expediency demands it. No, the roots of the unpology go much deeper. In the Age of Rove, the appearance of infallibility is an essential ingredient to the Republican brand. When Americans prefer Democratic positions across the board by often overwhelming margins, the image of the determined Republican who never falters and never backs down is a critical component to the GOP's brand of toughness. If being in love means never having to say you're sorry, then being Republican means never having to mean it.
But sometimes, taste, decorum and political necessity require expressions of remorse, even from Republicans. When saying you're sorry is unavoidable, the unpology is a Republican's best friend.

8 comments on “The Unpology: How Republicans Never Say They're Sorry”

  1. My reactions to this article:
    No kidding.
    This article will help us better spot the faux 'sorry' statements made by the manipulative, Rove-ians amongst us.
    Oooops. Sorry if you felt offended by that, Karl. Jeez--are you a little too sensitive? I meant no harm, you sneaky, anti-democratic plotter. That was me then. This is me now. Etc. Etc.

  2. Came upon this by accident and was impressed by the precision and completeness of the analysis of the Republican reaction to being caught doing wrong.
    Much appreciate the time and thought that went into this and look forward to returning on a regular basis for more of the same.

  3. Then there's the paradoxology apology...where the person says they are apologizing but they are really reaffirming their position. As in "I'm sorry but I just don't agree with you." And how about the doxology apology, where the person gives you a backhanded apology but phrases it as a praise to God...Jeapardy style. "Praise God because he showed me that I was wrong to beleive you."

  4. Well it might not be cool for Wikipedia exactly, but guess what? I've already submitted it to Urban ("A web-based savior for the completely uncool")
    Keep an eye on this spot below, but note that it might not show up there as submitted for a few weeks.
    Thanks perrspectives
    Example: "I apologize... I have little control over what people choose to believe." (...about my pleading guilty to lewd behavior in the men's room at the airport.) -- Senator Larry Craig, (R)Idaho


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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