It’s weird to hear a politician own up to a gaffe.
At a rally in Manhattan on Saturday, Gary Johnson began his speech with 16 startling words: “I want to start out with an apology to all of you,” the Libertarian Party presidential nominee told a crowd of 500 or so supporters. “This whole Aleppo gaffe....”
Wait, what? Politicians aren’t supposed to apologize — unless it’s one of those sorry-not-sorry deals that precede yet another rant about why the opposing candidate is a dangerous cretin.
Johnson, though, can’t shut his yap about saying “What’s Aleppo?” Thursday on MSNBC when asked about the war-ravaged Syrian city. He apologized in a statement, told “The View” he had “no excuse,” and when I saw him at an event in Philadelphia on Monday, he said to me, “Well, at least you know how to find Aleppo on a map!”
What would the world look like if politicians weren’t always applying lipstick to their rhetorical pigs?
The other presidential candidates seem congenitally incapable of such self-deprecating honesty.
It was one year ago this month that eventual GOP nominee Donald Trump was given a long set of Mideast stumpers from radio host Hugh Hewitt. Instead of confessing his ignorance in real time — an ignorance, I hasten to add, that I and the majority of Americans surely share — Trump tried to bluff his way through the interview, eventually mangling Kurds with Quds and generally coming off as unimpressive.
Trump handled his stumble by calling the conservative Hewitt a “third-rate radio announcer” with “very low ratings” and questioning his fitness to moderate debates. Self-reflection isn’t exactly the real estate developer’s bag.
Even when Trump gave his ballyhooed “apology” speech a month ago in Charlotte, N.C., he left out the specifics. He didn’t apologize for, say, alleging that Judge Gonzalo Curiel has an “absolute conflict” of interest in presiding over a Trump University case because of his “Mexican heritage” — a dual-loyalty slur that harkens back to some of the worst collective-guilt accusations in American history. No, the GOP nominee went general.
“Sometimes, in the heat of debate and speaking on a multitude of issues, you don’t choose the right words or you say the wrong thing,” he said. “I have done that. And believe it or not, I regret it.”
That would have been easier to believe if Trump had cited even one example. Or if he hadn’t quickly added, with hilarious inaccuracy, that the “one thing I can promise you is this: I will always tell you the truth.”
Trump’s no-apologies approach, and his demonization of whole swaths of U.S. residents, render ridiculous his complaint Monday that “Hillary Clinton has not apologized to those she slandered” in her infamous “basketful of deplorables” comments on Friday. It’s perfectly valid, though, to argue that her response was less than heartfelt.
“Last night I was ‘grossly generalistic,’ and that’s never a good idea,” Clinton wrote. “I regret saying ‘half’ — that was wrong. But let’s be clear, what’s really ‘deplorable’ is that Donald Trump….”
Whereas Trump bulldozes through criticisms with bluster, Clinton evades scrutiny of her misdeeds by maintaining the contradictory fictions that she accepts full responsibility and also has already answered all of the relevant questions honestly, thank you very much.
Clinton claimed last month that FBI Director James B. Comey “said my answers were truthful” about her private email server, even though Comey on multiple occasions has laid out in excruciating detail the half-dozen claims Clinton made about the emails that were not, as a matter of fact, true.
And when pressed on the emails issue during last week’s veterans forum, Clinton managed to go in just a few short paragraphs from “I make no excuses for it. It was something that should not have been done,” to “I did exactly what I should have done.” Sure, some combination of those words is probably accurate.
What would the world look like if politicians weren’t always applying lipstick to their rhetorical pigs, and maybe even not lying or making grossly pejorative characterizations in the first place? I’m not sure our lungs are adapted to breathe air that clean. But I do know that I’d rather have a candidate quickly cop to a brain fart or tall tale than continue blundering along from one lie to the next.
“When you tell the truth, that means that you acknowledge mistakes,” Johnson said Saturday. Mistakes are “part of everyday life. But it’s how you deal with mistakes that ultimately determines success.”
Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason, a magazine published by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a contributing writer to Opinion.