Commentary: Sterling Silver Apology

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As the Bush campaign tries to challenge the credibility of former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, there is one thing from Clarke's testimony this week that no amount of politics will tarnish: WNYC's Brian Lehrer says it's his apology to the 9/11 families.

BRIAN LEHRER: For people around here, the 9/11 commission hearings weren't just political, they were personal. September 11th may have been a day that shook the world, but it was our hometown tragedy. That's probably why Richard Clarke's apology has had such resonance here. If you missed it here it is.

Clarke: We failed you, I failed you, I ask your forgiveness....

Truth is, among the callers to my weekday talk show, Clarke's apology was received two ways. Many took it as the only moment of genuine humanity in a 15 hour orgy of political posturing and excuse-making. Some, however, heard the apology as another piece of political theatrics, cooked up by a PR firm perhaps. One caller noted that after Clarke apologized and asked forgiveness, he did the same thing as all the other witnesses did: delivered a version of history in which HE did nothing wrong.

In my own opinion, Clarke's hands are not entirely clean. He may owe another apology to Americans who've died in Iraq, for failing to go public with his opposition to the war when it might have mattered. As a counterterror chief, he concluded Iraq was not involved in sponsoring terrorism against Americans, but he's only saying so now.

But it hardly matters if his 9/11 apology was contrived.

Even if it was merely an act of public relations, it stood out so much because apologies in politics are so rare. And not just in politics: you don't hear apologies much in any professional setting because no one wants to admit mistakes. Being right means never having to say you're sorry. But that's just our inner lawyer speaking. It's emotionally grotesque. Even if the apology was a stunt, it acknowledged the very real anger, the hurt, the loss of the 9/11 families. It acknowledged that even if everyone in the government was doing their best, even if the attack was ultimately not preventable, at least one official was willing to say I'm sorry for not preventing it.

For her 1996 book, 9 to 5, linguist Debora Tannen studied men and women in corporate board meetings, and discovered that women constantly apologize, and men almost never apologize. And when men do apologize, Tannen concluded, it is hardly ever to admit fault, usually to smooth things over so they can get past an awkward moment. She says men apologize so rarely because boys are raised to believe they'll be punished by other boys if they show weakness, girls are rewarded for functioning well in groups, which apologizing promotes.

I think that's a factor here. Politics is combat, usually male to male combat.

But the willingness to apologize can also be a sign of strength, and in this case I think it was. In Deborah Tannen's terms, it kept the group together - the survivors of 9/11 and the government, which in theory at least, is investigating on their behalf.