Mitt Romney can defend himself against reports he bullied follow high school students or he can apologize. He can’t do both.
It’s infuriating to see an offender trying to weasel an apology while maintaining forgetfulness. Worse is couching the apology in the conditional (if I hurt) or subjective (would be very sorry) voices. In this respect, Romney’s apology has achieved the holy trinity of dismal apologies. He started by saying he did not remember the incident:
There’s no question that I did some stupid things in high school, and obviously,
if I hurt anyone by virtue of that, I would be very sorry for it and apologize for it.
This apology won’t stand. It will just energize his critics in making him remember and confront his actions.
An effective apology is giving up your argument with history.
A much better course for Romney would be to do what apology requires: embracing the reality of what he did as a teenager, accept responsibility for it, apologize, admit his pain at remembering his immaturity, and state clearly that he has rejected bullying behavior and has dedicated his mature years to protecting rather than victimizing those weaker or less privileged that he is.
Romney’s best hope is shifting the narrative from what he was to what he is. The only way to do that is to give up the defensiveness.
I would remind Romney of two facts. One, the media love a conflict. As long as Romney resists, the story will stay alive through endless cycles of classmates testifying about Romney’s teenage activities. No one who has been through high school can withstand such scrutiny. Two, it takes two sides to have a conflict. If Romney doesn’t resist, there is no conflict. The media will quickly tire of the story and move on to the next thing.
There’s a way for Romney to emerge from this challenge, but he will see it as tough medicine. And it is. Romney must acknowledge that he was a privileged asshole in high school and occasional bully. No one will be surprised by the first part of this admission. We all went to high school. We know full well that privileged kids acted like assholes. Most of us now know it wasn’t all their fault.
This is the only position from which Romney has standing to apologize and offer himself as an imperfect candidate who is on a moral journey, looking optimistically to the future but not afraid to confront the past.
It requires Romney to dig deep and burn the ladder. This is from an image that W. B. Yeats offered those who are attacked:
Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Apology, at its most empathic level, requires Romney not only to acknowledge that people have reason to see him as a bully, but on some level to agree with them.
Something powerful happens when we tell the impeccable truth. We often get forgiven.