I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

How to apologize and express remorse

Most apologies from public officials are of the disingenuous non-apology apology sort -- where the person pretends to apologize but is really doing nothing but offering excuses, justifications and defenses for their behavior. To the extent there is an "apology" at all, it's to express regret about how other people (unjustifiably) reacted to the behavior -- i.e., "I apologize if someone got hurt, was misled, was offended, as a result of (the completely justifiable) action I took." For a recent example of this ignoble and ugly genre, see this fake non-apology from Bob Woodward.

An authentic apology -- where the person admits wrongdoing without dilution or justification and expresses real remorse -- is very rare. It takes more courage and conviction than most people can muster in order to offer such an apology, particularly to do so publicly.

That's why the statement from Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (.pdf, via TPM) is so impressive. Cunningham pled guilty yesterday to some pretty despicable acts -- as a long-standing defense hawk in the middle of a war, he took substantial bribes in order to pressure the Defense Dept. to award contracts to the parties bribing him. He also lied repeatedly about his actions once they began to be exposed. And he will pay a heavy price for his crimes -- substantial fines, relinquishment of property, loss of his Congressional seat, destruction of his reputation, and prison, all at the age of 65.

But the statement which Cunningham issued yesterday is a model of candor, courage and authenticity. His political career was permanently destroyed yesterday, and -- other than the fact that he meant it -- he had no motive at all for issuing such a statement. That makes what he did that much more commendable:

I am resigning from the House of Representatives because I’ve compromised the trust of my constituents.

When I announced several months ago that I would not seek re-election, I publicly declared my innocence because I was not strong enough to face the truth. So, I misled my family, staff, friends, colleagues, the public -- even myself. For all of this, I am deeply sorry.

The truth is -- I broke the law, concealed my conduct, and disgraced my high office. I know that I will forfeit my freedom, my reputation, my worldly possessions, and most importantly, the trust of my friends and family.

Some time ago, I asked my lawyers to inform the U.S. Attorney Carol Lam that I would like to plead guilty and begin serving a prison term. Today is the culmination of that process. I will continue to cooperate with the government’s ongoing investigation to the best of my ability.

In my life, I have known great joy and great sorrow. And now I know great shame. I learned in Viet Nam that the true measure of a man is how he responds to adversity. I cannot undo what I have done. But I can atone. I am now almost 65 years old and, as I enter the twilight of my life, I intend to use the remaining time that God grants me to make amends.

The first step in that journey is to admit fault and apologize. The next step is to face the consequences of my actions like a man. Today, I have taken the first step and, with God’s grace, I will soon take the second.

Thank you.

Remember Cunningham's genuine apology the next time someone wants to pretend to apologize while doing nothing but making excuses for themselves.

UPDATE: Lest there be any confusion, I believe Duke Cunningham has behaved reprehensibly over the course of many years, for the reasons amply set forth by Digby here and for other reasons as well. And, independently, he deserves all the punishment he gets for these crimes.

But even reprehensible people are capable of honorable, commendable acts and of feeling authentic remorse. My praise is strictly confined to the refreshingly unabashed and candid apology which Cunningham publicly issued for his behavior.


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