Top 10 Tips for Political Apologies

March 7, 2012

Emily Yoffe, who writes the “Dear Prudence” column for, recently posted advice for Rush Limbaugh on how not to apologize. While I’m not convinced the nation’s #1 Dittohead is likely to heed the advice in the future, I think there are some very valuable tips for the rest of us-especially political leaders and officials who may occasionally need to take responsibility for lapses in judgment.

From Ms. Yoffe we can learn the following 10 tips for political apologies:

  1. Don’t lead with self-congratulation or self-pity.
  2. Don’t cite poor or errant choice of words for what was clearly premeditated and intentional choice of offensive language.
  3. Don’t offer an apology dripping with insincerity.
  4. Don’t claim a personal attack was not intended when it clearly was.
  5. Don’t apologize for a personal attack by citing the desperate times in which we live.
  6. Don’t apologize by escalating the original mischaracterization that created the need for an apology in the first place.
  7. Don’t avoid responsibility for your remarks or actions, or fail to acknowledge that you’ve crossed the line.
  8. Don’t apologize by trying to deflect from what you said or did by vague hand-wringing about policies beyond your control or the decline of civilization.
  9. Don’t apologize by suggesting that it is really someone else who should be apologizing, because they have said or done much worse than you.
  10. Don’t apologize for a poor choice of words that suggests a more literate insult would somehow be less offensive.

Of course, as Ms. Yoffe notes, the best approach to apologizing is the simplest: In the case of Rush Limbaugh, what he should have said was, “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke. My remarks about her were false, cruel, and repulsive. There’s no excuse and I offer none. I seriously crossed the line and I am sorry.”

Hopefully we all acknowledge the need for more civil public discourse in our nation and our communities. Civility is essential to sustaining our democracy, and we must find ways to rebuild the mutual trust needed to solve our most pressing public problems.

And how do we build trust? We build trust by being trustworthy. We build trust by demonstrating to others by what we say and by what we do that we are concerned for their well-being. We build trust by showing to others that they can rely on our concern for them, and that we will not intentionally let them down. But when we do, we build trust by apologizing quickly, simply, and sincerely.

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