Why can’t politicians admit they’re wrong?
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