Monday, May 24, 2010

Parsing An Apology

Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler has spent the better part of the last week flogging media figures and others whom he believes jumped to conclusions to condemn Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal for misrepresenting his military service. According to the original story, printed in The New York Times on May 17, Blumenthal, who served stateside in the Marine Reserves during the Vietnam War, routinely left audiences with the impression that he had faced combat in Vietnam.

Reporter Raymond Hernandez maintains there were at least eight instances from 2003 to 2009 in which Connecticut newspapers referred to Blumenthal as having served in the war and that the future law clerk to the great Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun obtained five deferments to avoid service in southeast Asia.

Presumably, these contentions all are true. But as Somerby has noted- and noted and noted and noted- there appear to have been only two instances in which Blumenthal actually claimed to have served in Vietnam, suggesting that critics such as George F. Will and Joe Scarborough probably should have put the matter in better perspective. And that I, when referring to it as "fairly appalling," was probably more accurate with the adverb than the adjective.

The uproar appears to have had little effect on Blumenthal's effort to replace Chris Dodd in the United States Senate, in which he probably would be far superior to his either of his likely candidates or his predecessor. Nonetheless, on Sunday Blumenthal's spokesman sent to the Hartford Courant an e-mail in which the A.G. wrote (in whole or in part- the story isn't clear):

At times when I have sought to honor veterans, I have not been as clear or precise as I should have been about my service in the Marine Corps Reserves. I have firmly and clearly expressed regret and taken responsibility for my words.
I have made mistakes and I am sorry. I truly regret offending anyone. I will always champion the cause of Connecticut's and our nation's veterans.


How close to a real apology is this? It's impossible to determine contemporaneously how sincere an apology is; those who believe they can are merely flattering themselves. Obviously, the major purpose of an "apology" is a strategic one, to limit the amount of damage to the speaker. With that in mind, here is one pretentious person's opinion, evaluating each portion of the statement separately on a scale of -1 (self-serving) to 5 (a genuine apology):

1) At times when I have sought to honor veterans, I have not been as clear or precise as I should have been about my service in the Marine Corps Reserves.

Places blame on himself in stating "I have not been as clear or precise as I should have been." Disingenous when noting "My service in the Marine Corps Reserves"- this is not about his service in the Marine Corps Reserves but about service in the active forces, abroad. Completely truthful but self-serving when he notes "when I have sought to honor veterans." Grade: 2

2) I have firmly and clearly expressed regret and taken responsibility for my words.

Again, Blumenthal, using the pronoun "I," appropriately places blame upon himself. Further, he recognizes that the problem is "his words" (see 3b)). But stating that one has "expressed regret and taken responsibility" is not in itself expressing regret or taking responsibility. (That's counter-intuitive but think about it.) Grade: 3

3) I have made mistakes and I am sorry. I truly regret offending anyone. The best part of this apology- or, rather, the most apologetic part is "I have made mistakes and I am sorry." This part would have been perfect if Blumenthal had specified what "mistakes" he is referring to (or, failing that, to have used the singular "mistake" rather than the more vague, plural "mistakes.") Still, rather good. But "I truly regret offending anyone" is awful. Rather than assuming responsibility here for "my words," the candidate is doing the reverse, stating that he is sorry for the offense someone took. This is classic apologia for a public figure, politician, actor, or whomever. The problem is not that of others; it is his; he is the one who intentionally misled people. And who is "anyone?" Would that be individuals who served in Vietnam- or the voters of Connecticut, for whom he is eliciting support in his race? Or is it perhaps all the people of Connecticut, whom he is serving as Attorney General? Grade: 3

There you have it- the good, the bad, and the ugly as seen by someone who never has met Richard J. Blumenthal, doesn't live in Connecticut, and has no formal qualifications for evaluating a statement of regret.



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