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Presidential Apologies: Regrets, They Have A Few

President Obama walks from the White House to Marine One on Friday. In an interview Thursday with NBC News, he apologized for breaking a promise regarding the Affordable Care Act.
J. Scott Applewhite
President Obama walks from the White House to Marine One on Friday. In an interview Thursday with NBC News, he apologized for breaking a promise regarding the Affordable Care Act.

Now that President Obama has apologized to those who've seen their health care plans canceled due to the Affordable Care Act, losses he pledged beforehand wouldn't happen, he joins the line of modern presidents who have had to look the American people in the eye and give their regrets.

Actually, Obama didn't so much look Americans in the eye as much as he did NBC News interviewer Chuck Todd. Predictably, the president's apology was rated unsatisfactory to many of his and Obamacare's critics. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for instance, called it "halfhearted." And that was among the nice things critics said.

It's true that, as apologies go, the mea culpa was arguably weak tea. "And I am sorry that they — you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me," Obama said, creating an odd distancing between his administration's actions and their effect on the citizenry.

While it might be too much to expect a president to say: "I'm sorry my administration's policies really screwed these Americans," if Obama's formulation seemed off-key, it was because it was so circumspect and indirect.

In that, however, Obama isn't alone. Being president means never having to say you're sorry, at least not in a soulful, direct way that resonates with other humans.

Consider just a few examples from Obama's predecessors.

George W. Bush: After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and his administration's response proved to be singularly inept, Bush faced a crisis of confidence in his leadership, fueled by his memorable "You're doing a heckuva job, Brownie" and other impressions he left that he thought all was well.

Instead of gushing "I'm sorry" — which really wasn't his style, after all — Bush opted for the "I'm responsible" approach. Three weeks after the hurricane swamped New Orleans, Bush took advantage of a joint press conference with the then-Iraqi president to say:

"Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government. And to the extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

Two days later, deep into a speech at New Orleans' Jackson Square, Bush struck a similar note. "When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution." And he stayed on message a year later during a return visit to New Orleans.

Bill Clinton: When, because of a deposition given under oath, he could no longer maintain the fiction that he didn't have a sexual fling with Monica Lewinsky, Clinton gave what amounted to an apology. But his words of regret barely contained the simmering anger he harbored toward his political opponents.

Clinton went the "I'm responsible" route, too, which is essential in presidential apologies — and pretty unavoidable in the case of sex since it's not like he could affix blame for that elsewhere in his administration.

"I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that."

But if he lied, it was well-intentioned, he added: He only sought to save himself and his family from embarrassment; he was protecting himself from a politically inspired lawsuit and from the independent counsel.

Afterward, his approval ratings rose. So by that measure it worked out well for him.

Ronald Reagan: For a president with a reputation for, at times, being too disengaged, Reagan did himself no favors with his apology for his aides' participation in the Iran-Contra scandal.

That was the triangle trade orchestrated partly by members of his White House national security team. Kidnappers linked to Iran, then as now officially a U.S. enemy, would release U.S. hostages in exchange for weapons sold to Iran. Some of the proceeds would then be diverted to right-wing groups in Nicaragua the Reagan administration backed.

Reagan initially denied that any such arrangements had occurred on his watch. But after a special panel investigated and found that it had, Reagan was forced to publicly acknowledge the truth.

But he did so in what may be the most charming (for his supporters) or disingenuous (for his opponents) apology of any modern president. It was an apology that seemed to confirm that the president operated in two realms: one he imagined, the other that actually existed.

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind. There are reasons why it happened, but no excuses. It was a mistake."

In fairness to Reagan, besides that revealing peek into a quirk of his personality, the speech could be a model for how presidents should own up to mistakes.

At the end, Reagan said something all presidents should keep framed in the Oval Office:

"Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That's the healthiest way to deal with a problem. ... You know, by the time you reach my age, you've made plenty of mistakes. And if you've lived your life properly — so, you learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward."

That would be a good place to end a post on presidential apologies. But how could I write a post like this without mentioning the one recent president who did give an apology where he seemed to let it all hang out?

Richard Nixon: During the turmoil of the Watergate scandal itself, little Nixon said publicly would technically qualify as an apology.

But a few years out of office, it was a more penitent Nixon talking to interviewer David Frost. He told Frost of how, shortly before the August 1974 Oval Office speech in which he announced his resignation, he apologized to a bipartisan group of lawmakers and old Washington hands.

Nixon recalled that he said to his White House visitors that day:

"I'm sorry. I just hope I haven't let you down.

"Well, when I said: 'I just hope I haven't let you down,' that said it all. I had: I let down my friends, I let down the country, I let down our system of government and the dreams of all those young people that ought to get into government but will think it is all too corrupt and the rest. Most of all I let down an opportunity I would have had for two and a half more years to proceed on great projects and programs for building a lasting peace."

You only get the real deeply meaningful apologies from presidents once they're out of office, apparently.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.