Friday, June 01, 2012

Of Edwards And A Critic

Following the decision of the jury in North Carolina to find him not guilty of one count while being unable to decide on the other five counts of the indictment, John Edwards issued a statement, though he did not answer questions.    Others may assess his sincerity in proclaiming love for members of his family or speculate about whether he will get involved in public service. Here, however, we evaluate the sincerity of an apology, which may be the most ubiquitous factor in modern politics.     In that portion of his remarks, the former North Carolina senator and presidential contender stated

I want to make sure that everyone hears from me and from my voice that while I do not believe I did anything illegal or ever thought I was doing anything illegal, I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong. And there is no one else responsible for my sins. None of the people who came to court and testified are responsible, nobody working for the government is responsible. I am responsible. And if I want to find the person who should be held accountable for my sins, honestly, I don't have to go any further than the mirror. It's me. It is me, and me alone.

Given that the jury was "hung," there is still a small chance that the Justice Department will try the defendant again, and Edwards therefore would have been (figuratively) insane not to have proclaimed his innocence of the charges.      Nor did he have to cross his fingers when he maintained "I do not believe I did anything illegal" because he probably did not.

Nearly everyone who issues an "apology" proclaims himself "responsible" and a public assumption of responsibility usually is unimpressive and virtually meaningless.

Not so, however, in this case.    Edwards preceded his admission of responsibility by asserting "I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong,"    Rarely does a public figure, politician or otherwise, actually admit he or she did something that was "wrong."    It is, at base, the litmus test of an apology.    Typically, an individual blames someone or something else or says he/she is "sorry" for how someone reacted to what was said or done.    The offender laments the impact- usually not the incident itself, and certainly not because it was WRONG.

Typical was the "apology" of former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik (as related here) who had to withdraw from consideration for the position of Director of Homeland Security under President Bush.     Mr. Kerik, who had neglected to tell White House representatives that he had failed to pay the required taxes for the housekeeper he had employed, said "I owe an enormous apology to the president for whatever distraction this may have caused.  This is my responsibility.   This is my mistake."

Kerik did not specify what "mistake" he was referring to- cheating the federal government, or simply keeping the information from the Administration.     He apparently believed he owed an apology to the Mr. Bush not because he did anything wrong but because it caused a "distraction."   And he did not acknowledge even having caused the distraction; instead, his remark was for whatever distraction it may have caused.

Edwards, however, was clear.    He did not give a pass to "everybody" who may have been caught up in it.    He specified "the people who came to court and testified" and individuals "working for the government."     Caught with his pants down (pun intended), Edwards could more easily have been vague.   But he was not, and thrice pointed the finger at himself:     "And if I want to find the person who should be held accountable for my sins, honestly, I don't have to go any further than the mirror.   It's me.   It is me, and me alone."    People who believe the decisiveness of the apology was for public consumption fail to realize that Edwards could have delivered a vaguer, more standard, apology to the same effect.

Some people were not as impressed.    Arguing the former presidential candidate  has "so veered off into the land of creepy self-delusion," Howard Fineman contended on Hardball (transcript here)

I`m watching a car crash of craziness here. And I know there`s second lives in American politics. But the notion that he took this occasion to weave the story of his children, of all his children, including the one that he had with the mistress, that he was having relations with while his wife was dying of cancer, that he`s going to weave the story of those children into the story of the poor people of America and the world.

And thus I am going to be the pied piper leading the Americas and the children together in a new public role for myself, that was so beyond any level of self-awareness as to be almost pathological. Did I make myself clear? 

Failing to be clear never has been his problem.    It was back in November, 1999 that Fineman was psychoanalyzing another Democratic candidate.    Bob Somerby in November 2011 described Fineman then telling Brian Williams

The fact is, Al Gore has been changing his clothes and his persona in public ever since I’ve known him, which goes back 15 years, Brian. I covered his last presidential campaign in 1988. One day he was in the conservative blue suit, the next he was playing lumberjack at the VFW hall in New Hampshire. This is a guy who, because of his upbringing and his attitude toward politics and maybe something about his life story, just doesn’t seem always to be of one piece, doesn't really always know who he wants to be in public.

Fineman noted that Gore "had worn conservative suits to some events, and casual clothing to to others" but nevertheless "was played off as a nut.    Everyone who followed Election 2000 knows the spin which Fineman was offering.   Al Gore doesn't know who he is.   It was recited over and over by amateur shrinks..."

Two years almost to the day after Fineman joined in the media's effort to delegitimize the Vice-President, he would be far more generous to another public official, the successor to President Clinton.   Somerby quoted Feinman on gushing  

So who are the Bushes, really? Well, they’re the people who produced the fellow who sat with me and my Newsweek colleague, Martha Brant, for his first interview since 9/11. We saw, among other things, a leader who is utterly comfortable in his role. Bush envelops himself in the trappings of office. Maybe that’s because he’s seen it from the inside since his dad served as Reagan’s vice president in the ‘80s. The presidency is a family business.

Dubyah loves to wear the uniform—whatever the correct one happens to be for a particular moment. I counted no fewer than four changes of attire during the day trip we took to Fort Campbell in Kentucky and back. He arrived for our interview in a dark blue Air Force One flight jacket. When he greeted the members of Congress on board, he wore an open-necked shirt. When he had lunch with the troops, he wore a blue blazer. And when he addressed the troops, it was in the flight jacket of the 101st Airborne. He’s a boomer product of the ‘60s—but doesn’t mind ermine robes.

A heck of a judge of character, that Howard Fineman.    Also in November (2010), as the journalist began at The Huffington Post, Salon's Alex Pareene explained

You can always count on Howard Fineman for a clear distillation of whatever the new conventional wisdom is. Unlike those who seek to drive coverage, Fineman was always content to sway with the prevailing winds. Each election season, he announces that Democrats need to signal that they’re moderate centrists and fight back against the unions. He was equally enthusiastic about candidate McCain in 2000 and candidate Obama in 2008. He defines “the mainstream” as whatever the pundit class currently thinks.

This is not to suggest that Fineman is a mere hack or that Edwards was sincere throughout his remarks yesterday.     But the latter, who never should have been prosecuted, offered that most unusual of public statements:    a genuine apology.    And this isn't the first time Howard Fineman has suggested that a prominent Democrat is unstable.    Fortunately, in this instance it will not assist the election to the presidency of someone who so arouses him.

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