Why can’t politicians admit they’re wrong?

June 7, 2011

Rep. Andrew Weiner, after elaborately denying posting a controversial picture on Twitter — Hollywood beauties are described as posing “semi-nude,” Weiner posed semi-lewd — just admitted that he did. Sarah Palin refuses to admit she was wrong about Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride — though she claimed Revere’s purpose was to warn “the British”. John Edwards, now facing criminal charges, is in jeopardy of going to jail owing to a chain of events that began when he refused to admit having an affair — after boasting of being a family-values vice-presidential candidate. Presidential contender Newt Gingrich first refused to admit a dumb remark about Medicare reform, then claimed quotation of his own remark is “a falsehood.” Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey at first refused to admit using a state helicopter for personal travel — though it was on film! — then denounced those who complained.

These are merely the last week’s examples of a troubling tendency among public figures — refusal to admit being wrong. Just as lying about what you did may be worse than what you did, refusing to admit an error may be worse than the error itself.

All human beings occasionally are wrong — trust me, I’ve had plenty of experience! Honest admission of error makes a person upright and sympathetic. Refusing to admit error, by contrast, suggests deviousness or even megalomania. The sort of person who huffs and puffs and refuses to admit a mistake does not belong in a leadership position.

In the era of YouTube and Twitter, it’s often easy to obtain the evidence of public error. That makes it all the more creepy when politicians stare into the camera and deny that they’ve made a mistake.

Yet we’re surrounded by politicians who deny their mistakes. In recent history, presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton denied significant personal errors: one lost the White House as a result, the other nearly did. (I will skip the many instances in which public leaders would not admit to mistakes because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that refusal was in the national interest.)

Recently in the United Kingdom, former prime minister Tony Blair refused to admit his memoir contained lines that appear lifted from a movie, weirdly defending the lines not as true but as a story he had told “many times”. In Germany, Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg’s refusal to admit plagiarism went so far that he nearly brought down the government before confessing and resigning.

Those who make mistakes used to say, “I was wrong” and sometimes, “I apologize.” Now they deny everything, even if, as with Palin, the mistake is quite minor.

After bollixing, in Boston, an account of Revere’s ride, Palin could simply have said, “Whoops.” Lots of smart people make mistakes about history — how many reading this column could describe, say, the Powder Alarm?

Palin was given a chance, on Fox News, simply to say whoops. Host Chris Wallace asked her, “You realize that you messed up about Paul Revere, don’t you?” Palin responded, “I didn’t mess up about Paul Revere … he did warn the British.” Palin then said that being asked — in Boston! — about the Midnight Ride was “a gotcha type question.” Next unfair media gotcha-type question for the former governor: Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?

What seems to be at work here is political egos so enormous that the politician who errs won’t say so — because this would be an admission he or she is not a little god walking on Earth.

Lashing out, rather than apologizing, is a bad sign in this regard. Gov. Christie, who thinks everybody else should cut back on favors from government, lashed out at any suggestion he should, too. Christie only revealed himself as a hypocrite. When Gingrich, who betrayed his first two wives yet now presents himself as the candidate of family values, was asked about that over the winter at a campus appearance, he lashed out at the questioner. Last week after making his doublespeak declaration that “any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood,” Gingrich bizarrely added, “That way we can have an honest conversation.”

Voters look for positive signs of why a candidate should be elected, and for danger signs of why one should not. There are few danger signs about politicians more clear than haughty refusal to admit error.

Photos, top to bottom: U.S. Congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) reacts as he speaks to the press in New York, June 6, 2011. Representative Anthony Weiner admitted on Monday to sending a lewd photo of himself to a 21-year-old female college student over his Twitter account after previously denying he had done so. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid; Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin (R) greets a protester holding a sign reading “Idiot Queen” as she arrives for a clambake at a private residence in Seabrook, New Hampshire June 2, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


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One of the things I constantly work to teach my daughter is that you’ll always pay more for trying to cover up one’s mistake than you will for the mistake itself. She seems to be getting it. Why is it that a 9-year-old (going on 10) can grasp this, but a former Speaker of the House, a one-time VP candidate, and numerous current elected officials can’t?

As Jim Collins, the author of “Built to Last” and “Good to Great,” put it, “Fair or not, people – especially in the United States – can forgive a lot of sins, but will never forget or forgive feeling lied to.” That’s a lesson I think Gingrich and Palin will learn the hard way should they actually run for the GOP nomination next year …

Posted by RayAnselmo | Report as abusive

Gingrich is running, and he’s already buried in the polls. We all know that Palin is a half-wit… for her to admit a mistake plays into that image in her mind so she’ll defend herself to the bitter end. Christie… well, I don’t want to keep bashing on conservatives.

But I think/thought Weiner was a really bright guy with a real future to lead in America. What he did wasn’t even a crime – why the crap did he feel he had to lie about it? I suppose it’s hubris – he felt invicible as he had pretty high credibility in many circles and thought he could talk his way around it. That really sucks – America lost a promising voice. I almost decry the fact that he has to go away (into obscurity) because of it, but to baldface lie is no way to lead. Obama has taken his lumps because he tries to be honest about situations (and gets shreded by Fox News for being wrong and shreded by the left for being weak).

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

It’s a generational thing. Baby Boomers don’t ever want to be held responsible for anything they do. All those politician that you remember who’d admit they made mistakes were GI generation.

Go read some of the literature on how to deal with your Baby Boomer Boss. It’ll be chock full of things like they want to take credit for thier teams success but they want individuals to take responsiblity for things that go wrong. Bill Clinton’s attempt to clarify what sex meant and George Bush’s refusal to admit there were no weapons of mass destruction are just typical reactions for baby boomers. If you are afraid you’ll be held responsible, attempt to change the rules.

Most likely when you start seeing more GENX’rs and GENY politicians you’ll start seeing more rational behavior.

Posted by samuel_c | Report as abusive

I think this is a phenomenon that applies most to politicians in public. I guess they feel admitting a mistake means admitting a weakness and this seems to be the general perception among all politicians.

Unless this perception changes things will remain the same. But it should change someday. The first politician who admits his/her mistake honestly will create a trend that will soon go viral!

Posted by VinBan | Report as abusive

I didn’t cut the cherry tree down. My hand just happened to be on the handle of the axe that did! LOL

Posted by mich07 | Report as abusive

Gregg Easterbrook- His name is Anthony, not Andrew. Proofread your work.

Posted by FrancisAlbert | Report as abusive

The same reason they won’t accept term limits … anything and everything is worth the cost of staying in office. Both parties disguist me. Weiner is a typical elitist that has never spent a day in the private sector and wouldn’t know how to create a job if he had to. He thought that between his superior intelligence and smart mouth that he could weael his way out of his self induced bullet to the head.

Posted by DuaneAllman | Report as abusive

Careful about admitting wrongdoing too quickly. You never know when there’s going to be an attorney who jumps out of the bushes and uses your words against you. Once you say it you can’t take it back.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

[…] Paul Revere story — have helped me finally put my finger on what bothers me so much about it. Easterbrook: These are merely the last week’s examples of a troubling tendency among public figures — […]

Posted by The Rightness of Being Wrong » Right Thinking | Report as abusive