His bad


The New York Times on Barack Obama’s admission.

The primary weapon for a president who really intends to clean up Washington is credibility — and that requires integrity. Mr. Obama showed that he has both of those things in abundance with his refreshingly frank admission that he “screwed up” and his assurance that he had learned from his mistake.

The Economist on whether Gordon Brown should own up to Britain’s economic troubles.

… most other politicians adhere to Benjamin Jowett’s famous dictum about apologies: never! Under duress, and in suitably lawyerly periphrases, they may, at most, express a compassionate “regret” for something inconsequential that they, or ideally someone else, did a long time ago … The explanation for this reticence is simple: self-criticism is an admirable trait in human beings but a potentially fatal one in politicians. A minister who apologises for a big policy error may be lauded for his honesty but sacrifice his credibility. Why should the public trust Mr Brown to get Britain out of its economic hole if he admits to having dug the country into it?

Apart from a sideways admission of error on Iraq during the last campaign, it’s difficult to remember an apologetic moment from Stephen Harper. As demonstrated by this magazine’s interview with him last month, he’s not much for public introspection. There is surely, as the Economist points out, some sense in that—it is probably not entirely his fault that our politics are so unreasonable.


His bad

  1. I’ve always wondered how Jowett’s dictum became popular wisdom among politicians. I tend to side with the NYT interpretation, that admitting a mistake – especially when it’s glaringly obvious that you made one – is rather important to maintaining one’s credibility. Hell, it could even be somewhat endearing, in the case of certain robotic leaders with a reputation for arrogance. I’m looking at you, Layton.

    • I wouldn’t say Layton’s been a robot lately so much as a quantum particle, in that he’s all over the place.

      • And, simultaneously, nowhere at all.

      • I was just kidding about Layton. I was referring to our robot in chief, Harper. He’s made so many mistakes, if he could just fess up to one of them, I’d be delighted.

        I actually think Layton could benefit from a little robot-like rationality now and again.

        • Since when are robots rati….

          …oh, never mind.

          • Haha, I actually thought about that before I posted it, but decided to go ahead anyway. I was thinking of a Data type robot. Wasn’t he rational? Or was it logical? Maybe it was the Vulcan that was rational. I think I meant logical. Anyways, I blame Star Trek for this mistake. If it even was a mistake. Which remains to be determined.

  2. I don’t think Harper has much to say sorry for (except for Iraq and wasting three years of government). What he should do is thank Canadians for never giving him a majority. We saved him from himself.

  3. So much hate for a fourth party leader. May be seeing something I don’t see.

    • It’s not hate. It’s more like gentle mockery. I know very few people who actually hate Jack Layton.

      Personally, I feel ambivalent towards Jack. I even like him in some ways.

      • He has a fantastic name, for starters.

        • Agreed. I also find Layton the most handsome of the party leaders, despite the fact that he is also the least hirsute.

          • However, his face is the most hirsute, which more than makes up for his relative baldyness. Moustachyness is next to godliness, I’ve heard.

          • Well, count me among those who hate Jack Layton … everything about him is everything that’s wrong with Canadian politics. The incessent opposition to everything, the claims to speak for “ordinary Canadians” as though other parties can’t, and don’t, represent their interests just as well or better (i’m looking at you, Toronto!), and the general smarminess that is Jack Layton.

            If Jack Layton leaves the NDP, it will be the greatest single gift he can give them — that party needs to stop being such a grandstanding bunch of self-important socialists that want everyone to be as rich as they are in their Chablis-drinking, brie-eating, Volvo-driving, Gucci-wearing smugness.

            Jack Layton is so self-aggrandizing of all our policitians, although I guess he has to be — the NDP, because it is about protest and not power, never has to “sell out its ideals,” so its supporters can always say things will be better once they “get their voice.” If you voted NDP in the last two elections because you don’t mind Jack Layton, congratulations, you elected Stephen Harper. if you voted NDP, you killed child care, and the Kelowna Accord, and other priorities you claim to have had.

            I like conservatives, because you know where you stand with them.

  4. Anyway, Aaron. The occasional apology may be welcomed by the citizens but the issuer would never survive the opposition attack dogs , the media ( slack-jawed variety ), the campaign advertising, or probably, the wrath of his own party. All politicians of all stripes have a lot to apologize for and they all know it but I don’t blame them for not going there.

    But Obama ……. yes, he can.

    • See, that’s what I don’t get. Opposition attack dogs, the slack-jawed media, spin doctors, etc. are going to attack their opponents regardless of whether they themselves apologise or acknowledge culpability or not. Right? I don’t see a lot of them going around “well, Harper clearly has flubbed this whole economy thing, but until he explicitly admits it, I really don’t see any lines of attack.”

      I think that to the extent average citizens actually think about such things, they tend to attribute blame regardless of whether or not politicians blame themselves. So, if anything, acknowledging a mistake and promising to correct it in the future would blunt the unrestrained partisan criticism, and make the leader seem more human, no?

      I must, just must, be missing something, because it all makes so much sense in my head.

      • I wonder if it isn’t a question of baselines. If the implication is that you’re normally infallible, any mistake you admit to reflects on your whole image. But if you didn’t lay claim to sainthood, admission of a mistake wouldn’t be front page news.

        I feel that, in a sense, we never really achieved democracy, in that we still put politicians up on pedestals and expect them to behave like bishops (down to the expensive clothes, such as one hardly sees on CEO’s these days). It may be government for the people and by the people, but the of-the-peopleness is lost — with the people’s enthusiastic consent — once they don the robes of office.

        Same thing goes for “gaffes.” Why should it be A-OK for Mr. Wherry to speak the unpopular truth but a “gaffe” if, say, Bob Rae should utter it?

        • There is a higher standard for politicians, but I tend to think it’s self imposed. If Harper admits to a mistake, or misjudging a situation, or (God forbid) apologises for doing or saying something stupid, I don’t think my world will crash down around me. However, I fear that Harper’s might crash down around him. Same goes for most politicians, which may be a contributing factor in their inability to introspect.

          I doubt many citizens consider our politicians infallible, quite the opposite really (ultrafallible?), so why they feel the need to act like they are is beyond me.

          • Do you think it’s just personality? Many of them seem to be borderline nutcases in private, so perhaps discretion is a sine qua non. Or it’s shyness? I guess I haven’t known enough politicians personally to have an opinion.

            Meanwhile, in contrast to the Roboharper, you’ve got people like André Arthur who, I gather, is basically an open book. I mean, you can’t wear a mask when you’ve got a daily radio show. Trudeau strikes me as someone who was like that — too juiced on life to bother asking who he was flipping off that day. Doesn’t seem to have done him any harm, all things considered.

Sign in to comment.